BY STEVE MITCHELL
The qualifying groups for the 1986 Mexico World Cup had paired Wales and Scotland together once again after the two countries had battled it out eight years previous for qualification to Argentina ‘78, with Scotland winning at Anfield (venue chosen by the Welsh Football Association) in what was effectively a play-off to see who would go through to the finals.
Going into the final round of matches, Scotland, Wales and Spain were all tied equal top on six points with only the group winners guaranteed a place at the Mexico finals – the second placed team would go into a two legged play-off with the winners of the Oceania qualifying section. Wales hosted the Scots in the final group qualifying game needing a win, whilst their visitors would get at least a play-off spot with only a draw thanks to a superior goal difference. 1985 had been an awful year for British football, the tragedy of the Braford fire was followed by the horrific events at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels forcing UEFA to ban English clubs from European club competition for five years.
Scotland manager Jock Stein had voiced his concerns ahead of the showdown in Cardiff that the game could ignite more crowd violence which would be televised to a watching nation with ITV showing live coverage of the contest. Stein told the press in the build-up that the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, would use any examples of bad behaviour to ban Scottish and Welsh clubs from also participating in European competition.
The reverse fixture played in March had ended in a 1-0 win for Wales with Ian Rush grabbing the game’s only goal but Scotland were quietly confident they could get the necessary result having already beaten the Welsh on their own patch on nine previous occasions. Stein was under enormous pressure ahead of the match; he’d taken over as head of the national team after Ally MacLeod’s disastrous World Cup campaign in Argentina and although the former Celtic boss had taken his country to the 1982 World Cup in Spain, two failed attempts at qualification to the 1980 and 1984 European Championships, plus a failure to win the Home International Championship meant his job was on the line.
Stein was also hampered by injuries to key players ahead of the Ninian Park clash. Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen and Steve Archibald would all be absent through injury or suspension. Stein was also taking medication for heart failure but stopped taking the prescribed medicine in the build up to the game so as not to suffer any side effects from the pressure put on him – it would prove to be the worst decision of his life.
His assistant at the time, Alex Ferguson, and midfielder Gordon Strachan had expressed their concerns over the manager’s health prior to the match and BBC Scotland reporter and commentator Roddy Forsyth (who had interviewed Stein on the afternoon of the game for a documentary he was making) also noted how he was sweating profusely even though it was merely an early Autumn day in Wales. The Scots were concerned with the physical presence of Welsh striker Mark Hughes who had caused so much damage in the first encounter - Stein started the game with five defenders with Richard Gough doing a man-marking job on the Manchester United man.
After 13 minutes, Scotland’s game plan had gone out of the window when a cross by Peter Nicholas was neatly tucked away by Hughes. Scotland goalkeeper Jim Leighton was having a torrid opening 45 minutes and Wales were unlucky not to double their advantage just before the interval, after Leighton misjudged the flight of a cross before making a last ditch dive at Hughes’s feet to keep the score line at 1-0. The comical events that followed during the half-time break bordered on the ridiculous when Leighton admitted to a furious Stein that he had lost a contact lens and hadn’t brought a spare with him. The management team (in particular Ferguson who was his club manager at Aberdeen) were speechless, having not known that their goalkeeper was short-sighted. Alan Rough, a veteran of two World Cup finals in Argentina and Spain, replaced Leighton for the second-half.
An hour into the contest Stein made what turned out to be his final decision as a manager, replacing Strachan with Davie Cooper of Rangers. The substitution paid dividends when, with nine minutes remaining, Scotland were awarded a penalty after the unfortunate David Phillips placed an elbow on the ball inside his own area. Cooper scored the subsequent spot-kick to send the Tartan Army (an estimate of around 12,000 in total) situated in all parts of the ground, into delirium. The Welsh fire had been extinguished, Scotland were assured of at least a play-off and Wales would have to wait for the outcome of Spain’s match against Iceland two weeks later to decide their fate.
What happened in the direct aftermath of the game is unclear; as the Scottish players celebrated on the pitch alongside thousands of fans who had spilled onto the field, Stein was seen by the ITV cameras being carried off down the tunnel by Police officers which led to match commentator Brian Moore suggesting he’d been overcome with emotion. Current Sky football commentator Martin Tyler, who was working as a pitch side reporter for ITV, informed Scottish captain Willie Miller that Stein had collapsed before Ferguson confirmed that he had had a heart attack. Jock Stein was pronounced dead 30 minutes after the final-whistle.
Steins funeral took place in Glasgow on September 13th 1985, the official cause of death was pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs) caused by heart disease. Two weeks after Scotland’s victory in Cardiff, Spain beat Iceland to gain automatic qualification to Mexico whilst at the same time eliminating Wales. Scotland, with Alex Ferguson now in temporary charge, beat Australia in a two-legged play-off to reach the 1986 finals where they were eliminated in the group stages – Andy Roxburgh later replaced Ferguson as national team manager.
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