England v Scotland: Is International Football's Oldest Rivalry Really a Rivalry?

Graham Ruthven@@grahamruthvenFeatured ColumnistNovember 10, 2016

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 14:  Merchandise on sale prior to the International Friendly match between England and Scotland at Wembley Stadium on August 14, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

It’s the oldest rivalry in football. England and Scotland are forefathers of the sport, with the first meeting between the two nations dating back to November 1872. That match (which finished in a goalless draw) was played in front of just 4,000 fans on what is now a cricket pitch. On Friday, the rivalry will resume at Wembley in front of a sold-out 90,000 crowd with World Cup qualification on the line.

Seventeen years have passed since the last competitive clash between England and Scotland, when Don Hutchison’s header gave the Dark Blues a 1-0 win over the Auld Enemy at Wembley, although it was the hosts who progressed from the European Championship play-off on aggregate. Friendlies have been played in the time since, but nothing can make up for the fundamental essence of competition. 

MAX NASH/Associated Press

And so Friday’s match will bring an edge to a fixture that has been missing for the best part of two decades. But is international football’s oldest rivalry really still a rivalry? Seventeen years is a long time for a rivalry between two teams to lie dormant. At what point does the rivalry fizzle out for good?

They say familiarity breeds apathy, but in the context of a football rivalry, the opposite is true. Club derbies are so fierce because of two clubs’ proximity, with at least two fixtures a season cultivating the rivalry between them to keep it relevant, to give fans more to throw at each other. The same thing doesn’t usually happen in the international game, especially when two countries go 17 years without facing each other in a competitive setting.

However, the indifference felt by both England and Scotland over their most storied fixture could be diagnosed as a symptom of the two countries’ existential crises as footballing nations. The national teams on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall have suffered in recent times, with a sense of apathy setting in. England and Scotland’s respective golden days were a long time ago, and interest in both teams has consequently taken a hit. 

15 Jun 1996:   Paul Gascoigne of England celebrates scoring England's second goal in the England v Scotland match in Group A of the European Football Championships at Wembley. England beat Scotland 2-0.
Stu Forster/Getty Images

Contrast the buildup to this week’s 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier between the two nations with the halcyon days of Euro 96, when England and Scotland met in a match that reflected the spirit of two teams, and two countries, heading in the right direction. There was a swagger about British football, and British culture, at the time. That swagger has turned into a limp.

Once the showcase of the best of both nations, now England and Scotland’s national teams have fallen well adrift of their previous standards, never mind the standards set by their international contemporaries. The two countries’ decline can be charted on the same graph, and so it’s little wonder that so few now seem to concern themselves with the English and Scottish national sides.

Does anyone care any more?

England and Scotland's records since Euro 96
CompetitionEnglandScotland
France 98Last 16Group Stage
Belgium-Netherlands 2000Group StageDNQ
Korea-Japan 2002Quarter finalsDNQ
Portugal 2004Quarter finalsDNQ
Germany 2006Quarter finalsDNQ
Austria-Switzerland 2008DNQDNQ
South Africa 2010Last 16DNQ
Poland-Ukraine 2012Quarter finalsDNQ
Brazil 2014Group StageDNQ
France 2016Last 16DNQ
Soccerbase

Some still believe so, with the hope harboured that a competitive fixture between the two teams, with World Cup qualification up for grabs, might spark the rivalry once more.

In a report from Brian Marjoribanks of the Scottish Daily Mail last week, Rangers manager Mark Warburton recalled the aforementioned clash 20 years ago:

I was at that England versus Scotland game at Euro 96, too, and it was magnificent for many different reasons.

It was a great fixture, with a magnificent atmosphere, and it will be the same again this month at Wembley.

The Auld Enemy game means everything.

The rivalry is in the blood. If I hear [Rangers goalkeeping coach] Jim Stewart mentioning Scotland’s win at Wembley in 1967 one more time I may fall out with him.

I have offered him a draw but he still wouldn’t take my bet.

I’ve also given one of my [Scottish] staff members a one-goal start, and he said: “Okay, I’ll put on a tenner!” That’s all I am saying.

But beyond bragging rights among team-mates and coaching staff, is there an edge to the rivalry? Wagers will be made before Friday’s game, but could this be a defining fixture for either nation? Perhaps for Scotland—although there is a certain apathy about this fixture on their side of the divide as well—but most certainly for England, this will barely register.

The same is applicable of their games against Germany and Argentina as well. The rivalry in international football is on the wane, which is peculiar given the rise of nationalism in society as a whole in recent years. For some reason, football doesn't quite reflect that certain cultural phenomenon. England vs. Scotland will illustrate that, doing little to mirror the heightening political tensions between the two countries in a post-Brexit, post-Scottish-independence-referendum age.

Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

Although there are those who believe the contest between England and Scotland is about more than anything that is evident on the pitch. That it is more than just a sporting rivalry. 

Ahead of the match at Wembley, Scotland assistant Mark McGhee said, as per the Press Association (via the Daily Mail):

Anyone who needs reminding of that maybe shouldn't be here.

Every single one of the players know that. A lot of these boys play in England.

I think it was Graeme Souness saying recently that don't be mistaken, the English players want to win this game just as much as the Scottish players and English supporters want to win just as much as the Scottish supporters.

So I don't think either group of supporters or players need reminding but of course if the manager chooses to take that line that will be up to him.

But I think we all know the rivalry, the history and we are all prepared for that part of the event.

Scottish football’s decline over the past two decades and beyond has also undoubtedly played a part in the fading of the country’s most storied rivalry. Not so long ago, England’s leagues were distinguished by exceptional Caledonian talents, like Kenny Dalglish, Denis Law and Graeme Souness. These talents were subsequently motivated by the inherent urge to get one over the enemy they know best, with the enemy keen to put them in their place.

But with fewer and fewer Scottish players making it to the Premier League, that factor has been eliminated. England fans at Wembley on Friday night might struggle to name more than a handful of opposition players, and that is not conducive to a fierce rivalry.

So while this match might have been a long time in coming—17 years to be exact—how many really care now that it’s finally here?

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