In the long and illustrious history of the enmity between England and Scotland, there have been some unforgettable moments. The Battle of Bannockburn, the Acts of Union in 1707, the Jacobite Rising, and that time in when Scotland won 2-1 at Wembley and their fans ran on the pitch and tore down the goalposts. While the first three examples pertain to domestic strife and political manoeuvring, the latter pertains to something far more important, namely the beautiful game. The on-pitch friction between England and Scotland has produced some classic matches down the years, and could once have been described as one of the most intense rivalries in international football.
These days, however, it's hard not to feel that the sting has gone out of the tail somewhat. It might be the oldest international fixture in the world, it might have thrown up humdingers like Scotland's 3-2 win against a World Cup-holding England side at Wembley in 1967, or the sun-soaked 2-0 victory for England during Euro '96, but a clash between the two nations today seems to have lost its popular appeal. That's certainly how it feels south of the border, anyway, with the national press largely lukewarm on the prospect of Friday night's World Cup qualifier against the Scots. Without all the usual barbed stereotypes and nationalist shit-stirring in the media, the whole thing seems a bit, well, lacklustre.
That might have something to do with the fortunes of the two national sides at the moment. England are coming off the back of an atrocious European Championships, not to mention the appointment and subsequent dismissal of Sam Allardyce for the crime of drinking a pint of wine. Scotland, meanwhile, haven't qualified for a major international tournament since World Cup '98, and it's touch and go as to whether they'll make it to Russia 2018 under the erratic guidance of Gordon Strachan. Neither team plays particularly attractive football, neither team has the same calibre of players it once did and, as such, there's relatively little to motivate people ahead of what would traditionally be an exciting and tumultuous affair.
To repeat, that's the general perspective from south of the border. In Scotland, however, fans seem to have a rather different take. To get a flavour of what the Tartan Army think of coming up against the Auld Enemy once more, we spoke with a handful of Scotland fans via email ahead of the first qualifier at Wembley. Their enthusiasm for the match was considerable, even if some had their own theories as to why international football in England and Scotland is, in a long-term sense, on the wane.
First up, we speak to Duncan McKay, a contributor to long-form Scottish football periodical Nutmeg. Asked about whether the rivalry with England still means something for the Scottish national team and its supporters, he says: "Absolutely. Scotland as a nation can't help but define itself in relation to England. It's like the much bigger, more glamorous older brother and Scotland knows it can't compete. There's a definite sense that once there might have been parity between them, but that's completely gone now. But the rivalry is still there. It wasn't a coincidence that the best selling national shirt in Scotland over Euro 2016 was Iceland."
Duncan seems to suggest that, as England have become more remote as a rival, the feeling of enmity amongst Scottish fans has only grown. One might think that, having only played each other twice in the last decade – both international friendlies – the sense of competitiveness between the two nations might have declined. Duncan disagrees, however, describing the relationship as "a one-sided rivalry where Scotland fans are desperate to win and England fans want and expect to win." That said, he does think there is an increasing disconnect between Scottish fans and their own national team, which could be more of a problem in terms of the future of Scotland's international support.
"There's a wider malaise with Scotland," Duncan says. "There's a real disconnect now between the national team and the general population. There will always be the Tartan Army diehards who attend every game home and away – including the oddballs that support the national team but don't have a club side – but the SFA's inability to sell out Hampden for the Lithuania game was telling. It's strange to have a national stadium that's the third best ground in a city, never mind the fact that it's awkward to get to. Then you have ticket prices that make you wince. This is combined with the staggered kick-offs which means it's difficult for non-central-belt Scotland supporters – of which there are a lot – to get to games. When you factor in an exclusive kit deal which means you can only buy the Scotland kit from one retailer and all Scotland games being on Sky TV, there's a whole new generation of Scottish supporters with whom the national team has never been so remote."
It's one thing being remote from one's rivals, another being remote from the team itself. That's certainly become a recurring complaint among England fans; not only are there issues like ticket prices, the cost of kit and the alienating mega wages of the squad to contend with, there's also a lack of personality to England's game, and a feeling that the national team lack a distinctive strategy or plan for improvement. In that sense, England and Scotland fans are perhaps more estranged from their teams than they are from each other. That's certainly the impression given by Jim Mackintosh, the poet in residence at St Johnstone FC and a contributor to independent fanzine The Football Pink.
While Jim agrees that the rivalry with England is alive and well from a Scottish perspective – "I've worked in England on and off for 20 years," he says, "and whenever there is a game, the attitude is nothing nasty, more like a 'ruffle of the hair, given a sweet and off you go and play with your toys' kind of attitude" – he too thinks that there is a sickness at the heart of the Scottish national game. "The recent performances of our national team, amongst other reasons, have diluted the enthusiasm for and expectation of anything positive," he says of the coming game against England. "Scottish football fell victim to the Sky cash cow some time ago, however. The imbalanced pumping of cash into Rangers and Celtic through TV deals has limited the development of Scottish talent, and restricted the opportunities to get experience and evolve in the upper tiers of the game in Scotland.
"There was a period when neither Rangers or Celtic played any Scottish players, and this closing off of paths was mirrored in England where the days of a reasonable smattering of Scottish talent in the top tier of English football almost completely disappeared. It has taken longer, but you are now seeing the same effect with the England team where the opportunity to develop at the highest level is not there. Add to that the fact that Scottish games are only shown on satellite TV, and you chip away at the presence of the game in the national psyche."
While there is less of a cultural and monetary monopoly in the Premier League, lacking as it does the two-club hegemony of Scotland's top flight, Jim certainly makes a compelling argument. He hastens to add that the rivalry with England still means something, especially in the context of what he describes as "hellishly biased" BBC coverage and the aftermath of the Scottish Independence Referendum. There will always be a political, social and cultural aspect to a clash between England and Scotland, even if the two sides are rather down on their luck. The build-up south of the border might have been fairly humdrum but, once the two sides step out onto the Wembley turf, there's bound to be a rekindling of the smouldering flames.
Of all the fans we speak to who feel the resurgence of the old fire in their bellies, Alistair Hodge, admin for Scottish Football Away Fans, is the most vehement. He tells us that "as far as the rivalry is concerned, there still seems to be a big rivalry from our side, though I'm unsure whether it's to do with the constant gloating about '66, the English media constantly putting us down or if it's just a national rivalry. Myself, personally, I've stayed in England," he goes on, "and after staying down there, the torment I got about football has made me hate English supporters more."
For some fans, there's clearly little forgiveness for the sins of England's footballing past, no matter the state of Scottish football today, or the lack of recent matches between the two sides. "I think that it adds to the occasion, the fact we hardly play England," Alistair adds. "The last two friendlies have been heated in my opinion, but now with it being a qualifier I think it will be a lot worse."
It shouldn't be forgotten that, despite Scotland's early woes in qualifying, this is still a massively important game. While Strachan's side lie fourth in the Group F table after a disappointing draw with Lithuania and a 3-0 humbling at the hands of Slovakia, they are only three points behind England in top spot. Gareth Southgate's men might be overwhelming favourites but, with their campaign crying out to be salvaged, Scotland fans can still dream. The early signs have suggested that Russia 2018 will be another tournament that Scotland miss out on but, then again, England have probably never been more vulnerable to a surprise defeat.
When we speak to Jack Bannerman and Brian Murnin, VICE's resident Scotland fans, they stress that they are nowhere near to giving up hope. If anything, living south of the border, they feel that the general ennui of England fans has fired them up even more. Talking to them, there's a sense in which the neglect of the old rivalry by the English press has been even worse than the usual national stereotyping, in that ignoring Scotland is the logical end point of decades of belittlement and patronisation. "From our perspective, it's always going to be massive to get one over on England," Brian says.
There are numerous factors that have dampened enthusiasm for international football in England and Scotland, then. For Scottish fans, the corporate evolution of the domestic game has been deeply problematic, as have issues with Hampden, careless logistics and the general dearth of world-class talent coming into the national side. That said, the supercilious attitude of the English footballing establishment over the years has stuck with them, and perhaps been made worse by the fact that so many England fans have a tendency to shrug at international football these days. If there's one thing worse than being belittled, it's being disregarded altogether. As such, Scotland fans will hope to make their rivals take note at Wembley, and so reignite the old rivalry once again.