It is nearly a month until England vs Scotland at Wembley, when the two sides will meet in their next World Cup qualifying game, but already it is shaping up to be possibly the most important match that the two historic rivals have ever played against each other. The outcome of the Wembley clash could decide not only the immediate future of the two managers involved but the long-term future of both footballing nations.
In a footballing context, the term “Battle of Britain” applies to club or international fixtures between English and Scottish teams. It was first widely used to describe the European Cup semi-final between Celtic and Leeds in 1970, when the champions of England and Scotland faced each other for a place in the final. The phrase “Battle of Britain” was immediately used by tabloids in both England and Scotland to sum up the magnitude of the game.
England vs Scotland at Wembley Could be Football’s Greatest Battle of Britain
Thirty years after the actual Battle of Britain – the RAF’s defence of Britain against the attacks of the German Luftwaffe – the term could finally be co-opted for a mere football match, albeit one of national and international importance.
Celtic won that first footballing “Battle of Britain” and the term has been used ever since whenever English and Scottish club sides have met in European competition, most recently in relation to the Champions League match between Celtic and Manchester City that ended in a thrilling 3-3 draw.
The original footballing “Battle of Britain”—although it was obviously not described as such—was the first ever official international football match, when Scotland played England in 1872. Such was the fledgling status of all football at the time, let alone international football, that the game was not even played on a football pitch but on a cricket pitch—the West of Scotland Cricket Club’s ground in Partick, in Glasgow. The final score was 0-0 and by all contemporary accounts the match was no classic, but the oldest rivalry in international football was born.
Indeed, it is arguable that the rivalry between England and Scotland is not only the oldest in international football but also the most important, because the early games between the two countries established the template for much of the football that has followed, both at club and international level, all around the world.
It was the English who had first codified football in 1848, bringing together all the different strands of “football” that existed at the time to create Association Football. However, it was the Scots who first revolutionised football, taking the English passing game and adding to it the ability to run with the ball, or “dribble”, which has characterised all the greatest players of the game ever since, from Stanley Matthews to Lionel Messi.
For many decades the annual fixture between England and Scotland in the “Home Championship” in which they both competed, alongside Wales and Northern Ireland, to become the Champions of the United Kingdom was regarded—at least in Britain—as an unofficial World Championship.
Entering the World Stage
British teams did not compete in the World Cup until 1950, because of interminable wrangling with FIFA over who should run the world game, but even after that dispute was settled, the yearly game between England and Scotland remained hugely significant. The most significant of all, certainly in Scottish eyes, was the 3-1 win at Wembley that Scotland enjoyed in 1967, which in their estimation again made them unofficial World Champions, given that England had won the World Cup a year earlier.
Seen in that historical context, it may appear perverse to label the forthcoming World Cup qualifier between the two nations as being potentially the biggest footballing “Battle of Britain” ever, but the tag is deserved because of the possible ramifications for either country if they should lose.
The Future of the Managers
To begin with, the result could easily determine the future of both managers. Scotland’s Gordon Strachan is already under immense pressure after Scotland’s pair of poor performances last weekend, drawing 1-1 at home with Lithuania and losing 3-0 away to Slovakia. Reportedly, Strachan considered quitting as Scotland manager after the Slovakia loss and he has thus far only committed to staying on for the Wembley game. Another defeat there, especially if it is a handsome one, would surely see him stand down as Scotland boss.
Strachan is not alone in fearing the possible consequences of a Wembley defeat. England’s current manager, Gareth Southgate, is only an interim manager, having been appointed to steer the national team through three World Cup qualifiers and the friendly with Spain after the embarrassing exit of Sam Allardyce.
Since his appointment, Southgate has certainly talked a good game, but he has utterly failed to produce any major upturn in performances in the two World Cup qualifiers that he has already overseen: a limp 2-0 win at Wembley against Malta; and a fortuitous goalless draw against Slovenia away, when only Joe Hart’s wonder save prevented England from going down to another wretched defeat, to follow the Euro 2016 exit against Iceland.
Southgate is certainly urbane and reflective, but when he was a player he himself suggested that the England team needed more than calm detachment from a manager to inspire it. The famous comment after the 2002 World Cup, that “England needed a Churchill but got an Iain Duncan Smith”, is usually attributed to him. And yet, unless he can inspire his England team to produce a fully committed, even fiery, performance against “the Auld Enemy”, his time as England manager will be almost as short-lived as that of Allardyce.
It is not only the future of the two managers that is at stake at Wembley but arguably the future of the two footballing nations. Scotland have not qualified for a major international tournament for 18 years and it was absolute agony for their fans to watch Euro 2016 this summer, because every other British side and the Republic of Ireland were there while they watched from the sidelines.
Scotland’s Qualifying Campaign
If, as many Scottish fans fear, they fail to qualify for the Russian World Cup in 2018, there is genuine concern that they may never qualify for a major tournament again. Successive failures to qualify inevitably lead to lower rankings in the qualifying pools and consequently ever-harder qualifying groups in the future.
But it is not only the Scots who should be wary of Wembley next month, for the English national side is also at an all-time low. The defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 was widely regarded as the most embarrassing by an English side since Tom Finney, Billy Wright et al lost to the USA in Brazil in 1950. And it came off the back of several utterly miserable tournaments under Fabio Capello and then Roy Hodgson, which have completely dented English players’ confidence at international level. That was evident again in Slovenia, when even in-form players like Theo Walcott were pretty woeful.
Increasingly it appears as if English players can only play supporting characters, as it were, rather than leading roles. In their club sides, they are supplemented by some of the finest foreign players from around the world, but once they are stripped of their stranieri they seem completely unable to think and perform for themselves.
Wayne Rooney’s Role
Perhaps Wayne Rooney is the outstanding example of this phenomenon. At Manchester United, he has been surrounded for most of his career by star foreigners, from Cristiano Ronaldo to Robin van Persie, but at England level he has usually been a lone star player and has correspondingly struggled to impose himself on international games.
Consequently the scene is set for a memorable match at Wembley in a few weeks’ time, which may lack for quality but not intensity. If Scotland lose, not only will Gordon Strachan almost certainly quit but the fear that the Scots are finished for good at international level will inevitably resurface. Equally, if England lose, not only will Gareth Southgate find himself being ushered towards the “exit” door but the long, slow decline of the England team in recent decades will gather new momentum. It is for this reason that the match can justifiably be described as potentially the biggest footballing “Battle of Britain” ever.