FORTY years go, and as unthinkable as it is nowadays, Scotland traveled to a World Cup with the nation believing they would return from the trophy.
It seems unfathomable now, but that’s exactly what happened when Ally MacLeod’s tartan army set out for Argentina in 1978, with Rangers men Derek Johnstone, Tam Forsyth and Sandy Jardine in tow.
Johnstone went into the tournament having netted an astonishing 41 goals – and surely, you would think, that would make him a shoo-in for selection. It didn’t pan out that way however, for Johnstone who was unused throughout the tournament.
Indeed, the tournament saw Scotland play just their three group games before being eliminated with a defeat to Peru, a draw with Iran before, typically, defeating eventual finalists The Netherlands in their last game to only narrowly miss out on qualification for the next stage.
It was a far cry from the expectation back home in Scotland, and for Johnstone, while reliving the feelings he had building up to the tournament, the eventual outcome for Scotland and for himself still leaves him with a sense of disappointment.
He told RangersTV: “There was a belief [Scotland could win it] because one man told them we were going to win it – Ally Macleod. Ally was an eccentric man, and I think everyone would realise that.
“He tried to get the country on our side, even people who didn’t like football, he wanted to tell them we were coming back with that trophy.
“A lot of people believed that, but certainly the players didn’t believe that. We were going there to do our best, and when you look at players like [Kenny] Dalglish and [Graeme] Souness, we had a really good side going out there and I really expected us to at least get by the first stage and do well.
“But things happened out there and it either goes for you or it doesn’t. There was so much that went wrong for us, even off the park never mind on the park, and I think the players were disillusioned.
“We couldn’t wait actually to play the third game against Holland, and the manager was great. His team talk lasted about 10 seconds, and was “listen, we’ve all been through a lot in these last few weeks – let’s just go out there, play and see what happens.”
“It was the best game we played and we beat the team who got to the final as well. It was a great disappointment but it was wonderful to be there.
“If you’re a football player, you want to play in World Cups. Yes, you want to play in cup finals and win leagues, but the World Cup, when you are playing against the best players in the world, is great.
“As soon as the season finishes and you start to prepare for the World Cup, the excitement is there and the whole country, no matter what country you are in, is buzzing and everyone wants to talk about the World Cup.”
With this year’s tournament now getting underway in Russia, Johnstone picked a nation perhaps considered as one of the outsiders to go all the way.
He said: “There isn’t one team I’d say are an out-and-out certainty to win it. I think when you look at Argentina, and you look at Messi and Aguero, they can score goals.
“You look at Neymar and Brazil, and you look at Ronaldo and Portugal – but I wouldn’t go for any of them.
“I would go for a team where most of the players are playing in the top league in England – Belgium. You look at their team, and I watched them against Costa Rica where they were a goal down but came back to win 4-1 easily in the end, they would be a good outside bet for me.”