England and Scotland’s Friday night clash could be the most significant meeting between the home rivals for generations.
The Tartans and the Three Lions have met on 112 occasions before, making it the most common fixture throughout their respective histories and one of the beautiful game’s classic of contests. In fact, the first meeting in 1872 was the first ever international fixture.
But the political subplots in this instance are impossible to ignore. It’s been just two years since a 5% majority voted against Scottish independence, just five months since disillusioned Englishmen overpowered Euro-friendly Scots in the Brexit referendum and perhaps most poignantly of all, the match falls on Remembrance Day – both FAs have fought hard for the right to wear the poppy.
Indeed, it seems an up-swell of nationalist feeling is inevitable, although what form it takes – and what identity it protrudes – remains to be seen; British brothers honouring the dead, Scots promoting their right to sovereignty or Englishmen gloating dominance over our isles’ smaller nations.
Perhaps a combination of all three, but the true significance of Friday’s game doesn’t lie in how it could be twisted by ideologues. Rather, the importance is a consequence of matters on the pitch; namely, both national teams reaching amongst their lowest, most humiliating troughs in living memory.
The England team is laden with world-class potential, or so we’re often told. But the scars of exiting the Group Stages of the 2014 World Cup, England’s worst ever performance at a major tournament, and elimination from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, England’s most embarrassing result of all time, are far from healed.
It took just 45 minutes of dissonant football against Slovenia for worrying habits of fear to reemerge. Deer staring into headlights became footballers staring into tomorrow’s headlines as some of the best-paid players on the planet suddenly lost the ability to trap the ball, let alone accurately pass it to a team-mate. Such fear of failure will only be magnified upon facing a less talented yet equally wounded Scotland.
Scottish football, meanwhile, has disappeared off the face of the earth over the last 20 years. Its top flight is the least competitive in Europe, its best players leave for England at the earliest opportunity and its ability to create the occasional genius – the likes of Kenny Dalglish or Graeme Souness – has vanished completely. Scotland haven’t qualified for a major tournament since 1998 and it’s hard to remember a squad less inspiring than this one, even with Scott Brown returning from retirement.
Therefore, the consequences of defeat could be monumentally disastrous for both counties. It would make 2018 World Cup qualification seemingly impossible for Scotland, with just four points from their first three games, or alternatively push England down a group they should be topping comfortably en route to Russia.
Although the Three Lions will have the opportunity to recover, when compounded with their exits from the last two major tournaments, underwhelming displays against Malta and Slovenia, and the looming corrupt shadow of Sam Allardyce which still lingers over the team, defeat to Scotland will accelerate England’s journey further along their downward spiral. The backlash from the press, who essentially impeached Allardyce just a matter of months ago, would be cataclysmic.
Perhaps most importantly, the jobs of both managers hang delicately in the balance. Another battering will instigate Gordan Strachan’s departure whilst, although the FA have insisted otherwise, interim boss Gareth Southgate surely can’t survive the humiliation of losing a competitive match against one of the weakest versions of the Auld enemy ever assembled.
Indeed, in typically British style, Friday’s contest isn’t a clash of titans, of which side can outperform the other, of who rises to the occasion best or which country produces the best footballing talent. Rather, it’s a straight up battle of who can embarrass themselves the least – an England team amid a crisis of confidence and identity or a Scotland side stuck in the dark ages. The significance of the Wembley clash lies in how insignificant both countries have become to world football.
So what will be the outcome on a cold November evening? With not much to truly gain but plenty to lose, don’t be surprised to see both managers settle for a draw.