Sunday 18 March 2018

Dion Fanning: Scotland can still produce moments of great excitement and great anxiety

Dion Fanning

Rarely has the great excitement been tempered by such enormous anxiety. These words by a commentator before Scotland played Italy in 2007 captured the existential conundrum of the Scottish football nation.

It seems that the country always exists in the space between these two feelings, bouncing in one direction before being catapulted in the other, doomed always to make the same mistakes while expecting different results, which is seen in some quarters as the definition of insanity, but is also the definition of a certain kind of genius.

Scotland built the British Empire with that determination to do the same thing and expect something different or, at least, to meet failure with a willingness to do it all again. Then Scotland built the mighty clubs of England and made the great clubs of their homeland competitive on the world stage.

To people with a certain type of vibrant if mordant intellect, the human condition itself looks like a battle between great excitement and enormous anxiety. Certainly those who have taken refuge in drink over the years would have found it offered a balm when the anxiety was too much and the excitement too little or vice versa.

Scotland has always produced people with this vibrant intellect who had an ability to profoundly articulate the suffering of the human race while doing little to alleviate their own misery. This vibrant intellect is a blessing and a curse while those who are highly anxious, according to recent neurological studies, can also be extremely creative thanks to their ability to imagine the worst possible scenario and react accordingly.

The Scottish football genius seemed to conform to this theory, as it was the perfect cocktail of excitement and anxiety. Men like Jimmy Johnstone and Jim Baxter provided the excitement while their great managers dealt with the anxiety and its associate — anger — that came from managing them.

Read more: Dion Fanning: Martin O'Neill's ordinary Irish team can't seem to win hearts of public

Somehow they managed to turn these forces into a potent creative potion, marrying their neuroses in a way understood now by experts in the brain but grasped instinctively by Scotland’s great football men. They went to war on the mundane and the facile. When Jock Stein was asked what Kenny Dalglish’s best position was, he replied, “Och, just let him on the park.” Managers like Stein, Busby and Shankly let the geniuses on the park and they did the rest.

Somebody like Baxter may have been a different player if the great excitement wasn’t tempered by the enormous anxiety. “There was no doubt that Jim Baxter was a brilliant player,” John Giles wrote of him, “and equally no doubt that he was a complete headbanger.”

Giles told the story of Don Revie’s visit to Baxter in Fife when he was considering signing Baxter for Leeds. Revie had researched Baxter’s misdemeanours and put some of the things in his dossier to Baxter. “That’s a big list, Don . . . a very big list . . . but there’s a few fucking things even you haven’t got there.” Negotiations broke down at that point.

They are all pretty sane now and it doesn’t appear to have done them much good, especially as the torment always remains.

The great football managers, meanwhile, have been replaced by imitators, men who have been left with merely the anger. Alex Ferguson saw something of himself in David Moyes but maybe he saw the wrong things, while somebody like Paul Lambert would appear to have many of the requirements of the great Scottish manager. He is a man of constant sorrow. And, of course, anger. But it is not quite enough.

They have reason to feel aggrieved at their current condition when they reflect on all that Scotland achieved in world football. Of course, there was something farcical about the calamities of their trip to Georgia but it was also a kind of bureaucratic failure, involving bourgeois concepts like leg-room and missed airplane slots which were not becoming of  a great celtic nation.

This was the footballing equivalent of going to jail for fiddling penalty points, a profoundly unimaginative act, while the image of the tired Scottish footballers sitting on a baggage carousel at dawn was a reminder of how far they had fallen.

Time was when they would haven been commandeering a rowing boat at that stage of proceedings, optimistically confronting the morning as they dealt with the twin forces of excitement and anxiety the only way they could — head on while venturing onto the Firth of Clyde before the managers were left to deal with the anxiety and the anger.

Those consolations are denied to them now and all told it is probably a good thing.

When Gordon Strachan took over, he banned alcohol for everyone involved with the national side which seemed like the wise course of action. A few years beforehand, two Scottish players drank late into the night and early into the following morning in an episode which became known as ‘Boozegate’. Once it would just have been called Saturday night.

In those days, their failings came from a surfeit of imagination but their success came from the same well. Now they appear to have anticipated nothing.

The lessons of history which have instilled a fatalism in Scottish football people seem to have been ignored by the Scottish FA who felt they could plan for a trip to Georgia as if it were a mini-break in Seville. They showed no understanding of the human condition, even if it has been somewhat overlooked that Scotland had already lost to Georgia by the time the plane taking them home failed to show up.

Of course, they went on to lose to Germany but in heroic fashion. Ireland may have found Scotland’s problems a source of amusement last weekend but the truth is we are also bedevilled by the same compulsions, the same energies and consolations.

We know, too, that Scotland are capable of anything, something we need to consider as we start war-gaming ahead of the matches in October. Like the drinking man who journeys from fun to fun and consequences before being left with merely the consequences, Scotland can sometimes look like they have just been left with the anxiety. But we know them better than that. They are always capable of a moment of great excitement.

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