Is it coming home? If it is, don’t expect all the home nations to welcome it. In Scotland, the dismal grunt of ‘Anyone but England’ (ABE) is the balm that soothes our aggrieved wee souls. It’s never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman watching England do well and even the most fleeting flicker of sunshine. Every four years — in fact, anytime England steps onto turf for an international — the worst kind of Scot is to be found cheering on the other side, whomever that happens to be. If the Three Lions drew Hannibal Lecter FC, chianti and fava beans would outsell Tennent’s and square sausages overnight.
These bitter bouts of Wee Man Syndrome might seem connected to the ascendancy of political nationalism north of the border. It’s safe to assume that most Scottish Nationalists will back Croatia next Wednesday. They would have been just as happy to cheer on a Russian victory; after all, they’ve been doing it in Syria for some time now. The truth, though, is that ABE is a cross-party cause. Scotland’s last Labour first minister — and the way things are going he really does look like being the last — stubbornly refused to back England in the 2006 World Cup. No, this isn’t about the SNP or independence; it’s about psychology.
Anyone but England is how Scotland works out its inferiority-superiority complex; it’s shite being Scottish but our shiteness makes us better than you. Scotland is the eternal underdog that never wanted to win anyway and shut up and our mammy’s calling us in for our dinner now. As a nation, we have an unhealthy compulsion to feel small then blame everyone around us for being arrogantly tall. We see it too in the fiction that the London-based press describes Andy Murray as ‘British’ when he wins and ‘Scottish’ when he loses, a myth that persists despite having been thoroughly debunked. If they held a World Cup in victimhood, we’d smash it every time.
Proponents of ABE will assure you it’s not the England squad they hate and nor is it the fans or even the country — it’s Them. They are the ones to blame; They are the reason Scots can’t just be happy for England; They make us this way. They being English football commentators, whom we lament with a seething sigh ordinarily reserved for pint-spillers and granny-muggers. The pundits spoil it, we tell ourselves, by banging on endlessly about 1966. They’re just so flag-waving, even on the BBC.
Of course they’re jingoistic. It’s Match of the Day, not Westminster Hour. Arthur Montford, who in his heyday was Archie Macpherson’s only rival for Scotland’s prince of the punditocracy, was unashamedly partisan in his commentary. There is hardly a Scot who can’t recount his exuberant cry when Kenny Dalglish destroyed the hopes of Wales (or such hopes as remained after Joe Jordan’s earlier... handiwork) at Anfield in 1977. ‘Argentina, here we come!’ Montford squalled. He had been just as boisterous four years earlier in Scotland’s qualifier against Czechoslovakia: ‘Come on Denis,’ he howled at Law, ‘Watch your back, Billy,’ to captain Bremner.
Reflecting on his approach years later, Montford was unapologetic:
‘If my commentary was passionate, it was because the night meant so much for Scottish football... I would not hide the fact that I was a passionate Scotland supporter... I'm often asked if Argentina 1978 was my lowest ebb as a commentator. Not by a long way. Having to describe England beating Scotland 9-3 at Wembley in 1961 was, well... I can't talk about it.’
As for ‘66, English commentators do bring it up a lot but not half as much as their Caledonian counterparts do ‘78. If bragging about the time you won the World Cup is pathetic, what is bragging about the time you didn’t? Most ABE Scots are oblivious to this. They tut-tut at the English tabloids’ hoary World War II jibes at Germany then get to their feet and belt out a pretend national anthem about slaughtering the English seven centuries ago.
There are players on the current Scotland under-21 squad who weren’t alive the last time the national side qualified for the World Cup. Any other country would pour its energies into solving that problem rather than yearning acidly for another country to lose. Not us, though. The collective noun for a group of Scots is a ‘resentment’.
What makes this so pitiful is that the traffic is all one-way. Aye, English fans crack the odd joke about ‘the sweaties’ or serenade their opponents — most recently Panama — with ‘Are you Scotland in disguise?’ But there’s banter and then there’s crippling, blood-boiling obsession, and England fans just don’t feel that towards Scotland. That’s because they don’t see us as rivals, ABE practitioners snap, knocking their own logic off its feet in a rush to justify their unrequited tribalism.
England fans can Gerry-bash like no one’s business but, try as we might, the bastards just won’t hate us. If Scotland was heading into a World Cup semi-final — come now, it’s not nice to laugh — you can just picture the response south of the border. England fans would throw their support behind the plucky 11 and battalions of BBC cameras would be despatched to interview players’ families, friends and old PE teachers. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn would discover long-lost great grannies who once had a fish supper in Portobello. The Sun would give away novelty kilts bearing the legend ‘It’s coming hame’; the Mirror would reprint the lyrics to Flower of Scotland for its readers to sing along. England, in short, would be a mate about it.
Why can’t Scotland do the same? Well, some of us do. I’m not one for football but I’ve had a hoot watching England defy expectations and slowly, agonisingly tempt the nation to pick up their oft-battered dreams and believe one more time. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t raised with football as a patrilineal religion — maybe it’s because I’m a gay and we struggle to follow the strange caprices of heterosentimentalism — but I don’t understand how anyone could resist England’s infectious optimism.
There’s a lot of talk about this squad’s ‘story’. Harry Kane is a goal machine but he also seems a stand-up guy — down to earth, engaged to his school sweetheart, just loves tearing away with a ball. Raheem Sterling, a picture of dignity and getting on with the job despite the brickbats on the back pages. Fabian Delph flying home for the birth of his third kid (modern men, this lot) and back to be presented with a tiny England top for the little one. It feels less like a World Cup and more like a Blair-era Richard Curtis flick about one: feel good, diverse, a bit cheesy but warm with it. Two Harrys and a Christening.
If there’s any squad Scotland can get behind, it’s surely this one. And we should get behind them because they seem like a decent bunch of lads and because we will seem small and petty otherwise. Anyone but England doesn’t hurt anyone but Scotland.