The summer before Sir Alex Ferguson began his astonishingly successful reign at Old Trafford, he stepped in on short notice to lead Scotland into World Cup 1986 in Mexico.
The vacancy became available following the tragic death of Jock Stein, a man Ferguson called a ‘one-man university’. During the short tenure, Ferguson showed glimpses of his affinity for conflict which would later change the course of the Premier League.
The tragic death of Big Jock
On September 10 1985, Scotland played Wales in Cardiff in a crucial World Cup qualifying match.
During half-time, Stein was forced into a goalkeeping substitution due to an issue with Jim Leighton’s contact lens. Alan Rough, the man to replace him, recalls Jack Stein’s last words to him, ‘You’re on, ya fat b*stard’. Funny until the end.
Stein collapsed after a vital 1-1 draw which sealed a place in the qualifying play-off for the World Cup. His sudden death was confirmed in the medical room of Ninian Park later that evening and would have a profound effect on Ferguson for many years to come. In his 2015 book ‘Leading’, Ferguson said that Stein was:
‘As close a managerial mentor as I ever had’
Professor Stuart Hillis, the Scottish medic, firmly believed that, despite his poor health, Stein would not have died that evening had he not been neglecting taking his tablets.
Whatever the circumstances, it was over to Ferguson, then Aberdeen manager and Stein’s assistant, to pick up the sabre of Scotland’s World Cup crusade in Central America.
Squad selection and future foes
In his reluctant position at the helm, Ferguson set about putting his own stamp on the squad, much to the dismay of some esteemed veterans in the squad.
Alan Hansen was the surprise omission from the World Cup, with Ferguson suggesting that Hansen’s absence from several games during Stein’s tenure showed a lack of commitment to the cause. The bitter rivalry would of course run for years later, culminating in the immortal line, “You won’t win anything with kids”.
35 year-old Kenny Dalglish, also a future rival of Ferguson’s, pulled out of the squad with a knee injury, although rumours circulated at the time that Dalglish’s absence was due to the omission of his old pal, Hansen.
Fighting the drinking culture
Mo Johnston was yet another man to receive short shrift from his manager. In his autobiography, Ferguson labelled Johnston a ‘specialist in boozy bad behaviour’.
In the final qualifying match before the tournament during Scotland’s tour of Australia in 1985, Ferguson phoned his assistant Walter Smith to check up on the squad’s behaviour. Smith replied:
“You’re not going to believe this. Those clowns Johnston and (Frank) McAvennie have brought three birds into the bar, they’re buying everybody drink. They’re going off their heads”
It was enough for Ferguson to add Johnston to a growing list of excluded stars from his 1986 tournament squad.
The feud between the two men would remain for the rest of Ferguson’s managerial career. Two years later, in Johnston’s 1988 autobiography, a chapter begins:
‘Let me give you the name I hate most in the world – Alex Ferguson’
Despite the high-profile omissions, Scotland had an immensely gifted squad, perhaps the likes of which we haven’t seen since.
Bolstered by a highly-talented coaching staff which included Walter Smith, Andy Roxburgh, Craig Brown and Archie Knox, hopes were high. Captain Graeme Souness ventured so far as to say it was the best prepared squad he’d ever been a part of.
The ‘Group of Death’
On top of playing babysitter to a group of misbehaving young footballers, Ferguson had the further misfortune of being drawn in the tournament’s ‘Group of Death’ – the Tartan Army would have to face Denmark, Uruguay and West Germany.
Despite having a talented band of players, Scotland struggled in the humid, sun-drenched conditions of central Mexico.
They limped to a 1-0 loss to first-timers Denmark and threw away an early lead against West Germany with some lacklustre defending, losing 1-2.
Gordon Strachan scored Scotland’s only goal of the tournament against West Germany, a moment which became famous for the Scot not being able to hurdle the advertising hoardings to celebrate with the Scottish fans due to his short frame.
Before the tournament, Ferguson and Strachan had a strange feud which continues in some form to this day. Ferguson wrote in his autobiography of Strachan:
“I decided this man could not be trusted an inch – I would not want to expose my back to him in a hurry”
It was yet another example of Ferguson’s inclination for conflict with those around him if he felt as though it hindered the overall success of his team. Captain Graeme Souness would be next up.
Dropping the captain
In the crucial final group match against Uruguay, Ferguson dropped his captain Graeme Souness, who had lost nearly two stone in the gruelling heat. Souness would later say:
“I struggled with the altitude, because it was 7,000 feet…The last game against Uruguay was a game for experienced men, but I wasn’t well. I couldn’t blame Fergie for leaving me out”
Souness never played for Scotland again.
Up against a ten-man Uruguayan side for most of the match, Scotland limped out of the tournament with only a goalless draw.
With the talent available, it felt like an opportunity missed, although the Scots were almost literally kicked off the pitch by a brutal display from the South Americans. Immediately after the match, Ferguson showed glimpses of his trademark distraction techniques:
“After what happened today, and the traumas that have happened to world football in the last year – I tell you, I’m glad to go home, believe me, because it’s no part of football, as we’ve been accepting it for years and years”
Ferguson was critical in the heat of the post-match analysis, although following widespread criticism of the quality on show at World Cup 2010 in South Africa, he would go on to say:
“Everyone always looks forward to the World Cup as if it is going to be the greatest thing ever but you have to go back to Mexico 1986 for the last good one”
The rest is history
Ferguson stepped down immediately after the World Cup and never returned to international management.
As he developed into arguably the greatest manager the game has ever seen, his strange relationship with international management would continue throughout, not least in the protection of his Manchester United players during international friendly assignments.
Ferguson recently expressed his frustrations at managing the national team following the death of Stein:
‘It was definitely not my cup of tea. In my opinion, international management jobs are for experienced men in the later stages of their career who have the patience to deal with the shortcomings of the post’
Four months after Scotland’s futile performance in Mexico, Ferguson was announced as the manager of Manchester United following the dismissal of Ron Atkinson.
The rest, as they say, is history.