Pele. Sellouts at Hampden and Tynecastle. Future superstars. Saudis with suspicious passports. Facial hair. Penalty shootouts. Being stood up by a girl. An Amsterdam nightclub. Bus drivers buying booze for kids. A house party. And Craig Brown.
The under-16 World Cup finals of 1989 has long since been woven into the rich tapestry of Scottish football as one of the apparently endless series of ‘could ye, did ye, have ye’ moments to befall those representing the national team. Yet even among that litany of foul-ups and failures, losing a World Cup final at Hampden on penalties against Saudi Arabia having led 2-0 and missed a penalty with 18 minutes to play stands out for its utter fecklessness.
Granted, the Saudis may not have adhered to the ‘under-16’ competition criteria as assiduously as the Scots, but to somehow contrive to lose from the position they were in on that June day in Glasgow seems spectacularly careless.
However, the passing of 33 years has enabled manager Brown to adopt a more sanguine attitude to what remains one of the highlights of his career. “The blunt truth is we overachieved in that tournament,” he says. “We just wanted to get out of the groups, albeit the Scottish FA wanted a bit more than that… “
Much more, in fact. A year before the finals – when he was under-21 coach and assistant to Andy Roxburgh with the senior side – Brown was summoned by SFA secretary Ernie Walker and told he would be taking over Ross Mathie’s under-16 side.
“He threatened me, really,” says Brown, recalling his embarrassment at supplanting his former Clyde colleague. “He told me that the success of the tournament depended on the success of the Scottish team, and that I had to succeed. He told me if there was anything they could do to help, just ask.”
Brown arranged for his prospective finals squad to act as runners for the Scottish FA’s coaching courses at Largs, ensuring that they were exposed to the likes of Alex Ferguson, Jim McLean and Walter Smith, and was determined to arrange as many matches as he could.
“It was a really tight bunch because we travelled all around Europe together that year,” says then Dundee United winger Andy McLaren. “And there was some fun and daft stuff going on… I can remember we were in Holland and they let us go to a nightclub when we were 15.”
While that might jar with Brown’s desire to ensure they were the fittest and best-drilled team in the finals, it did serve the young Scots well. Every night they were together, the manager could be found hirpling along the corridors of their quarters, chapping on doors and demanding 50 trunk curls, sit-ups or press-ups from the likes of McLaren, Paul Dickov and Brian O’Neil, each of whom he would eventually award senior caps to.
That trio started the opening game of the finals and went on to play significant roles in a tournament that, belatedly, captured the imagination of the Scottish public.
10/06 Scotland 0-0 Ghana. Hampden. Att: 6,500
12/06 Scotland 3-0 Cuba. Fir Park. Att: 9,000
14/06 Scotland 1-1 Bahrain. Fir Park. Att 13,500
“Meeting Pele before the first game at Hampden was some start, shaking the great man’s hand,” recalls winger McLaren, but that was one of the few highlights of a drab beginning to the tournament. Just 6,500 fans were scattered around the vast, open terraces of the national stadium for the game against Ghana, which ended goalless after captain Kevin Bain missed a penalty. “The keeper saved it but it came straight back to me and I tried to put my laces through it,” says Bain. “But it went about three miles over the bar.”
Spot-kick misery at Hampden would be revisited a couple of weeks later, but at that stage a point was considered a reasonable start against a side containing Pele’s proclaimed heir, Nii Lamptey.
A larger crowd gathered at Fir Park a couple of days later to witness a comprehensive clubbing of Cuba, with three goals in nine first-half minutes – two from Morton attacker Kevin McGoldrick adding to an opener from Dundee United midfielder John Lindsay – setting up a decider against Bahrain.
By that stage, interest was growing and 13,500 turned up at Fir Park to see Celtic midfielder James Beattie put the Scots ahead within two minutes, only for the Bahrainis to earn the point that would win them the group.
17/06 GDR 0-1 Scotland. Pittodrie. Att: 10,200
“That was the game that made me go, ‘woah, this is getting big now’,” says O’Neil, the ratcheting-up of the intensity against the East Germans more than compensating for a slight dip in the attendance.
Failure to win the the group meant a last-eight meeting with Brazil – South America’s strongest representatives – had been avoided, but the second-best side in Europe remained ominous, if familiar, opposition for the Scots.
The teams had fought out a 2-2 draw in the European Under-16 Championships a month earlier amid a disappointing tournament for Brown’s boys, who failed to make the semi-finals after losing 2-1 to the USSR and drawing 1-1 with Italy in their other two group games.
The East Germans, however, scudded France 3-0 in the last four before being taught a lesson by the peerless Portuguese, with the finalists claiming the two European places alongside the hosts in the World Cup.
The East Germans had been based in Aberdeen for their group games and looked comfortable in their surroundings, imposing their efficient, short-passing, disciplined style on the Scots. Manager Brown talks of that being the night when “things clicked” for his side but captain Bain’s recollection is of a much more fraught evening. “We got absolutely battered,” he says. “Big Jim Will was outstanding in goal that day and kept us in it.”
But, as the regulation 80 minutes edged into stoppage time, Scotland pushed forward in search of a winner. “Lindsay picked up a loose ball in the centre circle and headed for goal,” reads Fifa’s technical report. “With the GDR indecisive, he beat the last defender and shot low and hard to score, sending Scotland into the semi-final.”
20/06 Portugal 0-1 Scotland. Tynecastle. Att: 29,000
Ask those old enough what they remember of the ’89 tournament and most will talk either about bearded Saudis or this astonishing evening in Edinburgh. Officially, 29,000 fans were wedged into Tynecastle – although anecdotal evidence suggests many, many more – with somewhere in the region of 5,000 locked out. “Driving in on the bus, you could tell there would be a big crowd, but there were people sitting on the track,” says McLaren. “It was absolutely rocking.”
Consequently, kick-off was held up for 40 minutes. “We went out 10 minutes before the game was due to start,” says Bain. “But when they decided to delay it, we couldn’t get back off the pitch because there were so many people milling about, so we were stuck there for 40 minutes kicking balls about.”
In the other half of the playing surface, the Portuguese were doing likewise. Coached by future Real Madrid boss and erstwhile Manchester United assistant Carlos Queiroz, their XI included the likes of Luis Figo and Abel Xavier, as well as Miguel Simao, who went on to play for St Johnstone.
The contest was described by Fifa as “the artisans of Portugal v the pragmatic Scots” but the pragmatists would teach the artisans a lesson on a febrile evening, O’Neil scoring the only goal when he bulleted in Lindsay’s corner after 54 minutes. “They were favourites to win the tournament but we played really, really well that night,” said the goalscorer.
None more so than Bain, with the Fifa report stating that “Gil Gomes, the star Portuguese striker, was marked with great awareness and authority by the Scottish captain”. As it happens, both followed broadly similar paths in the intervening years – injury hampered Bain’s attempts to carve out a career at Dundee before moves to Rotherham, Stirling Albion, Brechin City, Peterhead and East Fife, while said Portuguese star striker suffered similar issues at Benfica before bumping around English non-league football.
And both now have sons involved in the game, with Angel Gomes an England Under-16 international who plays for Manchester United and Kevin junior the physio at Ross County.
But only one has led their nation out in the final of the Under-16 World Cup.
24/06 Saudi Arabia 2-2 Scotland aet. Saudi Arabia win 5-4 on pens. Hampden. Att: 58,000
So what is it like to lead out Scotland at Hampden in a World Cup final? “Eh, I can’t actually remember, to be honest,” says Bain sheepishly. “I remember trying to get through the traffic on the bus and I can remember holding up a placard spelling out ‘thank you’ but I can’t remember leading the team out and the game itself is a blur.”
That confusion is perhaps understandable when you consider the tumultuous events of the previous couple of weeks, in which this group of 15 and 16-year-olds had gone from being utterly unrecognisable to national heroes. “Most of us were just coming out of school and suddenly we were the biggest thing in Scotland – we were on the back pages, the front pages, and everywhere else,” says McLaren.
O’Neil talks about the surreal nature of the build-up and the fact that “we’d be walking down the street and people would recognise us”. And Bain recalls the TV cameras and comedian Andy Cameron turning up at the team base in Largs the night before the final.
Both teams were described as “surprise finalists” in the Fifa dispatch, but 58,000 people were inside Hampden to watch Scotland and Saudi Arabia attempt to become the world champions. The Scots were understandably confident, buoyed by the home support, but some concerns crept in as the teams lined up.
“I had just turned 16, so I was always one of the younger ones, but these Saudi boys had full-grown beards. It was pretty ridiculous,” says winger McLaren, who was fit for the final after missing much of the tournament with a calf problem. Manager Brown was slightly more circumspect, adding: “There were rumours; people who had seen them play earlier in the tournament said they looked mid-20s.”
A quick glance at the squad list shows that the Saudis were all born in the last five months of 1972, so were towards the upper limit of the age restriction, and had showed “extraordinary physical maturity” during the tournament, according to Fifa. The governing body added the caveat that “this can be explained by the fact that in this part of the world, mental and physical development is reached at a much earlier stage”.
Regardless, the Scots were two up inside 25 minutes after goals by Ian Downie and Dickov. Arsenal prospect Dickov created Downie’s seventh-minute opener, eluding his marker and crossing for the Aberdeen midfielder to angle a header high into the net, then he doubled the advantage himself, pouncing on a loose ball and, from an acute angle, chipping Saudi goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Deayea, who would go on to win 178 full caps and play at four senior World Cups. “We thought we were world-beaters at that stage,” says a rueful Dickov, now a pundit.
It seemed that they would be when, with just 18 minutes of the regulation 80 remaining, Dundee United’s Gary Bollan was hauled down after a coruscating run and a penalty was awarded. Up stepped O’Neil, but Al-Deayea produced a splendid save. “If we’d scored, we would have won,” says Bain, who had a late header cleared off the line. “And then it wouldn’t have mattered if they were 16 or 26.”
It was very much the latter, according SFA secretary Walker. “We were cheated,” he told the Daily Record in 2009. “I mean, it was so obvious – the Saudi keeper looked like Peter Shilton. And I was told by a coach that one player was married with three children and was a captain in the Royal Guard – yet he was playing in the under-16 World Cup. Everyone tacitly acknowledged we were done but proving it was the problem.”
Brown tells a similar tale, and suggests that the $35,000 reward put in trusts for each of the victorious Saudi players to cash in once they reached the age of 35 was claimed “sooner than it might have been for a few of them”.
However, O’Neil is less ready to believe that he was cheated out of winning a World Cup. “Some cultures are just a lot more physically mature at that age,” he says. “Lads in that culture tend to have facial hair at a younger age, just like lads in our culture tend to be peely-wally with freckles. It’s just grasping at straws.”
After O’Neil’s penalty miss, the Scots wilted and the Saudis scored twice to force the game into extra-time, despite being reduced to 10 men. “We did well to hold on to 2-2 because we were all towing caravans,” added O’Neil. “We probably shouldn’t have even survived to take it to spot-kicks.”
But they did. Meaning that at least five exhausted teenagers had to summon up the courage to take a penalty in a shootout for Scotland at Hampden in a World Cup final. Nervous? “No chance,” says McLaren. “I was desperate to take one; I’d practised for that moment ever since I first kicked a ball. It is what I dreamed of doing growing up in Castlemilk. You were always pretending to take a penalty in a World Cup final or Scottish Cup final and I think I was the first to put my hand up. I remember looking up and seeing my mum and dad in the crowd. I held my three fingers up because I was taking the third penalty and my maw covered her face because she didnae want me to take one.”
Not everyone was as confident. Dickov missed the first kick and, although one of the Saudis also erred from the spot to take it to sudden death, O’Neil’s second failure of the day proved decisive. “Nobody fancied it,” the former Celtic youngster explained. “So I stepped up but it was horrendous – a bad, bad penalty. I wasn’t actually that nervous, I just wasn’t very good at them.”
If Brown is to be believed, O’Neil’s day got even worse. “I met Brian standing on his own at George Square later that night and he said he’d been stood up by a lassie,” the manager says. “So he missed two penalties and got a custard pie… I told him, ‘you deserve it for missing two penalties in a World Cup final’.”
O’Neil, though, tells a different story, one corroborated by Bain – even if the duo can’t agree on how the majority of the squad found their way to defender Eddie Conville’s house in Bishopbriggs. “Eddie’s parents had just moved but still had the keys to their old place,” recounts Bain. “And on the way, our bus driver went to the off licence for us.”
“Naw, it was taxis that we got up to big Eddie’s house,” says O’Neil. “But I had to be at the airport for 6am the next day because I was going to America with Celtic. So I’ve no idea what old Broon is talking about me and some bird. Mind you, I think a lot of the boys did alright that night… “
What happened next?
By the next morning, though, they were back to being 15 and 16-year-olds struggling to establish themselves as professional footballers. Even Brown acknowledges that most of his squad were “okay, at best, individually” and only three of the 18 – O’Neil, Dickov and McLaren – would go on to win full international caps.
Many, though, enjoyed careers in the senior game, with midfielder Neil Murray winning a domestic treble with Rangers, Bollan lifting the Scottish Cup with Dundee United, winger David Hagen winning the First Division with Livingston, and defender Scott Marshall making 27 appearances for Arsenal.
Others fell victim to an assortment of misfortunes – knee injuries did for Dundee United defenders Conville and Tom McMillan, Tannadice midfielder Lindsay and Kilmarnock goalkeeper Martin Dickson – or simply fell out of love with football. Arsenal goalkeeper Will, who was player of the tournament, dropped down the leagues before joining the police; Celtic full-back Jim Beattie became a taxi driver after fighting cancer; Aberdeen midfielder Downie became a postman; and Morton attacker McGoldrick quit football at 19 to work in a tannery.
“Some people peak earlier than others and some are late developers,” says Bain, who is now a sales manager for a car company in Kirkcaldy. “A lot of the guys were with big clubs and it was tough to break into their teams. There are certain things you might have done differently but I’ve got no regrets… not many people have led Scotland out at a World Cup final at Hampden.”