One evening in May 1978, almost 30,000 people stood on the terraces of Hampden Park in a state of near-hysterical excitement. Festooned with flags, scarves and banners, they had come to wish good luck to their nation’s World Cup squad before their flight to Argentina. They cheered as 10 massed pipe bands took to the field; they sang along with Andy Cameron, the comedian whose anthem “Ally’s Tartan Army” had proved an unexpected hit. Finally, they roared their adulation as the 22 members of the Scotland squad stepped sheepishly out onto the red carpet, followed by their manager Ally MacLeod, the hero of the hour. Rarely had a British team departed with such high hopes; certainly none had ever had such a spectacular send-off, broadcast live on television. And as the squad’s coach carried them south towards Prestwick Airport, thousands of people lined the road. One man, who had just jumped out of the bath, was dripping wet. Others held up children and babies to see the bus, housewives waved tea towels, bridges were draped with flags and banners. At Prestwick, hundreds of people gathered on the beach to wave as the plane lifted into the air, euphoric in the knowledge that they were watching the future world champions.

Whenever footage of the Hampden send-off appears on television today, it is always as the prelude to inevitable disaster. The fate of MacLeod’s boys at the 1978 World Cup, where they lost disastrously to Peru, drew haplessly with Iran and crashed out with a pyrrhic 3-2 victory over Holland, has become an object lesson in the hubris of a small country that dared to dream. You have to force yourself to remember that, having knocked out the European champions, Czechoslovakia, in the qualifiers, the Scots were widely seen as dark horses to win the whole thing. Expectation was staggeringly high, yet tickets were in short supply. One fan told the press that he planned to hire a submarine to take him across the Atlantic, while an enterprising travel agent toyed with organising flights from a runway on the Shetlands. Some fans hoped to work their passage on a boat from Spain; “several dozen more”, according to theTimes, had flown to New York and were making their way down to Mexico, “after which their travel plans are, to say the least, vague.”

Meanwhile, commercial sponsorship had reached levels unimaginable only 10 years before. To the amazement of the press, British firms paid £5 million to support the squad, with Chrysler at the head of the queue. The Trustee Savings Bank produced a special booklet, “The Flowers of Scotland”, while the Valentine greeting-card company paid the squad £25,000 for the rights to sell their official team photograph in newsagents across the country. At Esso garages, drivers could pick up beer glasses engraved with the players’ signatures for just 40p each, while other World Cup-themed products included T-shirts, shampoo, aftershave, talcum powder and, slightly bizarrely, a Scottish-themed soap on a rope.

World Cups never take place in a vacuum and Argentina 1978 was no exception. But while much of the international coverage focused on the host nation’s military junta, British newspapers had rather more parochial concerns. The Scottish economy, fatally dependent on old-fashioned heavy industry, had been in deep decline for years. But now salvation seemed at hand; thanks to the discovery of North Sea oil, talk of Scottish economic and political independence no longer seemed far-fetched. By the end of 1975, polls put the Scottish National Party ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives for the first time, and in May 1977, a year before MacLeod’s men left for Argentina, the SNP made record gains in Scotland’s local elections, breaking Labour’s control of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. Little wonder, then, that many observers thought that success for MacLeod could have seismic political consequences. “With their lips Jim [Callaghan] and Maggie [Thatcher] may be shouting for Scotland,” remarked theDaily Mail. “But in their political hearts they’ll be rooting for those bonny outsiders from Peru and Iran.” Indeed, if the Scots actually won the tournament, thought theMail, then Celtic pride “would be like distilled firewater. Hooched up on that, the nationalists could rampage to victory up there in any general election that followed.”

A more experienced manager, conscious that no Scotland side had ever qualified for the later rounds of the World Cup, might have dampened the flames of excitement. Ally MacLeod was not that man. From his very first press conference, when he told reporters that he was “born to be a success”, to his first words to his players — “My name is Ally MacLeod and I am a winner” — the former Ayr and Aberdeen boss seemed a Caledonian Brian Clough: cheeky, loquacious and endlessly enthusiastic. The fans loved him, largely because he played to their prejudices. Thus, on the eve of Scotland’s warm-up games, he announced that he planned to use England (“a second-class nation”) for “target practice”.

Then he went even further: “You can mark down 25 June 1978 as the day Scottish football conquers the world. For on that Sunday I’m convinced the finest team this country has ever produced can play in the final of the World Cup in Buenos Aires and win. We have the talent. We have the temperament and the ambition and the courage. All that stands between us and the crown is the right kind of luck. I’m so sure we can do it that I give my permission here and now for the big celebration on the twenty-fifth of June to be made a national holiday: a national Ally-day.”

Not even defeat to England could dampen MacLeod’s confidence. His players had treated the game purely as a training exercise, he explained, and now he was off for a few days’ rest before the flight to Argentina. He would be using the break, he said, to do some last-minute DIY: “I’m putting in a new corner unit to hold the World Cup.”

What followed has gone down in sporting legend, from the dilapidated Scottish team hotel in Alta Gracia, with no water in the swimming pool, no net on the tennis court and plaster peeling from the bedroom ceilings, to the two dead horses on the road to the team’s Córdoba training ground. 14 minutes into their game against Peru, Scotland took the lead. But then everything fell apart, Teófilo Cubillas blasted home two superb goals and, before they knew it, the Scots had contrived to lose 3-1. Contrary to myth, the press reaction was initially forgiving. Even the English papers were relatively benign: the Express, for example, thought that the Scots had “lost honourably while trying very hard.”

But then West Brom’s Willie Johnston failed a routine drug test after taking the mild stimulant Reactivan and the boot went in. Now Scotland’s march of destiny was beginning to look more like a night at the circus. “The match against Iran,” said the Times, “clearly becomes the most testing in the history of Scottish international football. They are a team in disgrace and badly need to win to avoid further bad publicity.”

Then came the most embarrassing 90 minutes in the history of Scottish sport. As against Peru, MacLeod refused to pick Liverpool’s dynamic young midfielder Graeme Souness and, for all his rousing rhetoric, Scotland never got going. Jeered by a pitiful crowd of fewer than 8,000 spectators, MacLeod’s players toiled drearily until just before half-time, when the Iranians decided to help them out by scoring an own-goal of farcical proportions. Surely now the floodgates would open? Not a bit of it: 16 minutes into the second half, after Scotland had sunk back into their torpor, the Iranians scored a deserved equaliser. On the bench, MacLeod sat alone, his head buried in his hands, a picture of misery and helplessness. At the final whistle, he trudged off to a chorus of boos.

To Scottish fans who had spent hundreds of pounds travelling to Argentina, the shame of Córdoba was almost too much to bear. As the players trooped disconsolately towards the tunnel, they had to run a gauntlet of men in tartan tam o’shanters flicking V-signs at them. Later, while their bus was waiting to leave the stadium, they were surrounded by jeering supporters. “MacLeod ought to be ashamed of himself,” one man, magnificently turned out in kilt, cape and tam o’shanter, his voice trembling with fury, told the television cameras. “It was an absolute shambles and a disgrace to Scottish football.” The next day’s papers agreed with him. Scotland might have drawn 1-1, wrote the veteran football correspondent Norman Fox, “but this was an even worse performance than against the Peruvians simply because Iran are such outsiders in the world of football.”

“Never,” he concluded sadly, “have they been so humiliated.”

The next day, Chrysler pulled its adverts involving the Scotland World Cup squad. After all the hype, the headlines — “SCOTCHED!”, “ALL THIS WAY FOR SFA”, “DEAD END ALLY” — were predictably unforgiving. In Dundee, one record shop slashed the price of “Ally’s Tartan Army” singles from 65p to just 1p, urging customers to buy as many records as they wanted and smash them to pieces on the counter with a hammer. Even the Tories got in on the act, with their Shadow Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, making a laboured comparison between the beleaguered Scottish manager and Britain’s Labour Prime Minister: “the manager, Dead End Cally, who carries the can.”

For many commentators, the implosion of Scotland’s ambitions was a damning indictment of a national culture of self-deluding arrogance. MacLeod had arrived in Argentina “more as a cheerleader than as team manager,” remarked theTimes, yet “his attitude of ‘let the opposition worry about us’ was typical of a certain school of thinking that has too many followers in Britain.” In the Observer, Hugh McIlvanney, himself a proud Scot, saw MacLeod’s fall from grace as a lesson in the perils of Celtic chauvinism. “The seeds of the small disaster,” he wrote, “are to be found in the natures of the people most devastated by it.” For as McIlvanney pointed out, “most Scottish supporters gave every indication of being happy to be on the march with Ally’s Army… They believed him because they wanted to believe him, because he talked like one of them, indeed could contrive, when utterly sober, to sound as the wildest of them might sound after a night on the liquid hyperbole. In the run-up to the tournament he behaved with no more caution, subtlety or concern for planning than a man getting ready to lead a bayonet charge. The fans echoed his war cries, never bothering to wonder if the other contenders for the world title would be willing to stand still and be stabbed.” And now, in the ruins of humiliation, the Scots were left with “the realisation that something they believed to be a metaphor for their pride has all along been a metaphor for their desperation.”

There was, of course, a twist in the tale. On the day McIlvanney’s piece was published, Scotland had one last chance to redeem themselves against Holland, who were many people’s favourites for the trophy. The Scots needed an implausible three-goal victory to stay in the tournament and what followed is etched into the memories of every Scottish fan, from Archie Gemmill’s splendid slalom to the bludgeoned goal by Johnny Rep that consigned MacLeod’s men to oblivion. Eventually Scotland’s 3-2 victory became famous as a magnificent failure, a kind of sporting Culloden. Yet as the next day’s Scotsman remarked, their courageous performance only made what had gone before seem “all the more excruciating”. Revealingly, the players flew home to a distinctly glacial reception. At Glasgow Airport, some were even jeered by the local baggage handlers. “Even the airport people were baying for blood,” recalled the goalkeeper, Alan Rough. “It was like a hanging mob the way they were screaming at us. It was pretty much fever pitch; pretty bad.”

After all the expectation, Scottish football’s pretensions had been exposed before the world. Even the British chargé d’affaires in Buenos Aires sent a damning report to his Foreign Office superiors, remarking that the Scots had seemed “provincials out of their depth in international waters”. As Scottish commentators pointed out when the document was released 30 years later, there was in this more than a little Anglo-Saxon satisfaction. “English sportswriters have sportlessly wallowed in the mud we’ve slung at the tattered Tartan Army. We’ve called them posers, big-heads, Ally’s Follies, a ‘sick joke of a team’. We’ve put in the boot, trodden on their bowed necks, danced on the graves of their hopes, and drunk their spilt blood like whisky,” wrote theExpress’s famously severe Jean Rook. She blamed the SNP, who had “alienated everybody south of the border she would have liked to put up between England and Scotland.”

But the truth was that the SNP’s bubble, like MacLeod’s, had well and truly burst. Had Scotland contrived to bring home the World Cup, then perhaps the nationalist cause would have gathered even greater momentum. As it was, enthusiasm melted away like snow in the summer sunshine. When the government held a referendum on Scottish devolution the following March, only one in three people voted for it. The Scots had to wait another 17 years for their assembly — by which time their national game was in deep decline. And MacLeod? He had long since resigned, returning to his first love, Ayr United. But he never lost his sense of humour. “I am a very good manager,” he said later, “who just happened to have a few disastrous days, once upon a time, in Argentina.”


This article appeared on Episode Fifty Four of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.