On Friday night, England and Scotland will kick-off against each other at Wembley. The fixture is a World Cup Qualifier, but everyone involved knows that it is something more than that: a Scotland victory would go down in Scottish football folklore and an English defeat would be decried as a shameful embarrassment amongst much of the English football press, regardless of its effect on either side’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup from Group F. Despite all of this, though, matches between old enemies have become something of a rarity.
This lack of England-Scotland fixtures – Friday evening’s will be just the sixth since 1989 – is even more startling when you consider that, before the cancellation of the annual fixture, the two nations had played each other every year since 1872, when the teams met in the first ever international football fixture. The gap between 1989 and 2013 was even more egregious, only being filled by games produced by the luck of the draw: Paul Gascoigne’s finest hour at Wembley during Euro 96, and a two-legged playoff for Euro 2000 which saw both teams win away from home and England progress on aggregate.
In 2013, thanks to the Football Association’s 125th Anniversary, a friendly was scheduled, and it lived up to the hype, with England winning 3-2 after Scotland had twice taken the lead, with a debut goal for Rickie Lambert. The contract did allow for a return fixture, a forgettable 3-1 English victory at Celtic Park the next November, but there have been no signs of a resumption of the annual rivalry.
The return of the British Home Championship, dormant since 1984, seems an even more distant prospect, with England maintaining their position of the time that they have bigger fish to fry. The irony of that cause is not lost on the current holders of the British title, who reside not in Glasgow or Cardiff, but Belfast – the final edition, in 1984, saw both of the ‘lesser’ nations finish first and second, respectively. Both were excluded from the FA’s birthday jamboree (though Brazil, Chile, Germany and the Republic of Ireland were included) and, though Wales have been given a few recent chances against the English thanks to UEFA’s fixture computer, Northern Ireland haven’t had a crack at England since they hosted Sven-Goran Eriksson and the ‘Golden Generation’ in September 2005 – and beat them 1-0.
England will maintain that playing Germany, or Brazil, or Spain, is not only better television, but is better, more intense practice for the biggest matches England have to play at major tournaments. The recent history of the English football team makes it hard to place exactly where this delusion comes from – England have, after all, won just three knockout games at major tournaments in the past twenty-five years, and have only played in eleven over than time.
Furthermore, the difficult, important games in qualification are almost never against the “top-tier” European nations, thanks to seeding. Instead they are against smaller, less richly-talented nations, who often play a more tenacious, counter-attacking style of football, eschewing possession in favour of rigorous tactical discipline. Indeed, those kind of games can happen even after you have qualified for tournaments, whether you’re playing Algeria, Slovenia, Costa Rica or Iceland.
Would England not benefit from more practice against teams like Northern Ireland, who aim to keep a tough defensive shape and frustrate their opponents? Would it not help them to play Wales, a team which relies on the talents of a few supremely talented individuals? Would their team, often derided for being out-of-touch pampered primadonnas, not benefit from being exposed to the fevered atmosphere of Hampden Park?
The answer to all of these questions, I believe, is yes. It makes even more sense when you consider the willingness of the other Home Nations to play one another – Northern Ireland have played Scotland and Wales in the last eighteen months. A revival of the British Home Championship could also make sense given the upcoming revolution in European international football, with the UEFA Nations League set to supplant friendly internationals from the 2018/19 season onwards. England would still get their glamour friendlies, but within a competitive framework.
A Home Championship revival, therefore, could stretch over multiple seasons fitting into the windows when friendlies still occur – before or after international tournaments, or when other fixtures take precedence, such as World Cup play-offs. At only six games long, there will still, even in football’s bloated and never-ending calendar, be space.
It would be special not just for students of history, nor for the betterment of the quality of football in the British Isles, but for the fans. Of course, in the simple sense, it would give more fans the opportunity to follow their team away from home. But, more than that, it would allow us to define our teams once again in the context of our local rivalries, which, in football, as in any other sport, are so vital to how fans think and feel about their team – as any fan who has watched a Six Nations rugby match would attest.
International football, absent the mesmeric quality that is now the preserve of elite club football, thrives on passion, emotion, and rivalry. England, Scotland, and the other Home Nations have it in abundance. Why not, once every few years, indulge it?