A Brief History of England v Scotland

Getty Images/Steve Welsh

Following five unofficial friendlies in which Scotland used no one actually living in Scotland, international football finally got under way. The final day of November in 1872 saw England versus Scotland played out in front of 4,000 spectators. Each paid a shilling to watch 22 amateur association football players kick a ball round a cricket pitch and ultimately fail to score. International football, they called it. This wouldn’t catch on… would it?

The Scotland–England fixture at Hamilton Crescent in 1872 kickstarted two things. Firstly, it gave birth to football matches between nations. Revolutionary at the time, but a creator of unrivalled memories and a geopolitical icebreaker like no other ever since. It also founded the footballing rivalry between serene England and the irrelevants north of the border. Or between the mighty Scots and their hubristic cousins from the south. It’s all a matter of perspective.

In the 149-year existence of international football’s original rivalry, it has been described as an all-encompassing fixture that manages to showcase all that is good and all that is bad about football. It would be naïve to think that football hooliganism in Britain has somehow dried up and ceases to be. However, in between the xenophobic chants and the smashing of chairs and the pub bar brawls that this fixture has brought with it over the years, some truly vintage football has been played.

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From Don Masson’s thumping header, to Leigh Griffiths’ superb free-kick double in the most recent encounter. And who could forget Paul Gascoigne’s deft flick and volley that befitted the stage as England won 2-0 at Euro 96? Scotland versus England is stitched into football history 114 times. The 115th meeting looks set to be one of the most intriguing. Capturing the hopes of avid fans from both sides — and a rare moment in which the Scots and the English will both agree — Pat Nevin told EnglandFootball.org that “I just hope it will be a right good game.”

He then added: “I hope it means something, because I want Scotland to have a chance of getting through.” In a backhanded sort of way, it now means more to Scotland than ever. Steve Clarke’s side were on the receiving end of a Patrik Schick masterclass in their opener, which they lost 2-0 to the Czech Republic. The Scots’ visit to Wembley tomorrow will therefore mean a hell of a lot. To steal a win would be to take a giant leap to second-round qualification. To lose would all but send Scotland out.

There is scarcely a bigger moment in a Scottish footballer’s career than facing England competitively at Wembley. That historic fact remains a fact today. The Three Lions, on the other hand, are dreaming of knockout fixtures against the Portugals, Germanys, or Frances of the continent. It is not in their interests to get sucked into the historical narrative of this famous rivalry of old. “Another opportunity for three points,” as Gareth Southgate called it. But only, the Scots will contend, if England can match the visitors’ inevitable fight and determination.

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Tomorrow night’s Wembley meeting between England and Scotland will be the most significant chapter in a very long novel, level at the top with the Euro 96 match a quarter of a century ago. Whichever team wins and whoever you are — whether Jack Grealish or Jack Hendry — this is the sort of fixture that makes it all worth it. All the youth football; the trials, the long journeys, the highs, and the heartache.

Wembley may be a marked improvement on a boggy Glasgow cricket pitch. Even a quarter-filled stadium will dwarf the 4,000 watching on at the Crescent 149 years ago. But other than that, it’s essentially the same spectacle. England versus Scotland in a footballing fight to the death.

…Or another opportunity for three points. It’s all a matter of perspective.

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