x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Let old hostilities resume

The news that the English and Scottish football associations have been holding discussions about reviving the world's oldest international - first played in 1872 - brought an even broader smile to the face of the ever-smiling Sir Bobby Charlton.

Scotland fans invade the Wembley pitch and destroy the goalposts following their side's 2-1 victory in the Home International match against the
Scotland fans invade the Wembley pitch and destroy the goalposts following their side's 2-1 victory in the Home International match against the "Auld Enemy" England on June 4, 1977. The last of these fiercely contested fixtures - on and off the pitch - took place in 1984.

The news that the English and Scottish football associations have been holding discussions about reviving the world's oldest international - first played in 1872 - brought an even broader smile to the face of the ever-smiling Sir Bobby Charlton. "I would love to see the game resurrected," he told me. "Every fan should see an England-Scotland international and every player should experience playing in one. Believe me, there is nothing quite like it in terms of atmosphere and excitement. I was deeply sorry when the game was erased from the calendar and if it resumes, then I'll be first in line for a ticket."

For a man who held aloft the World Cup trophy in 1966 and who won a European Cup winners' medal with Manchester United at the same Wembley Stadium two summers later, those sentiments serve as a hearty recommendation. So what made the annual cross-border skirmish (last played in 1984 although the two nations subsequently met in the European Championship) such a special occasion? "I have a bundle of golden memories," continues Sir Bobby, who wore the three lions on his proud chest on 106 occasions.

"For instance my first ever game at Wembley, England Schoolboys against Wales Schoolboys, a game that attracted a capacity 93,000 in those days. The pitch felt like green velvet; I didn't think we'd be allowed to walk on it far less run around in football boots. After that came my debut for United at Charlton - fittingly I suppose - where I was fortunate enough to score twice. Throw in the World Cup final and the European Cup final meant so much to dear, old Sir Matt [Busby] and, not least, my first cap against Scotland at Hampden Park.

"Football has given me a horde of memories to treasure. Where I grew up in Ashington in Northumberland, you either went down the coal mines, joined the Army or looked for work in the local shipyards. I was lucky - outrageously lucky you could say - of being granted the privilege of playing football for a living." While Wembley '66 remains Charlton's greatest day - "If you don't count meeting my wife Norma and the birth of my two daughters Andrea and Suzanne..." - then the possible resumption of ancient England-Scotland hostilities represents a fond reminder of the fixture which he holds most dear.

"Brazil...West Germany...Italy...they were all very special games for any English player but the most special was always England-Scotland. There's no argument about that and, of course, it was even more important to the Scottish players and fans. I loved playing Scotland at Hampden Park. There was a crowd of 134,000 when I made my international debut in '58 - there must have been the same number lining the streets just to boo our bus - and I reckon 133,999 of them must have been Scots judging by the reception when we ran on to the pitch.

"Hampden's old East terracing where 50,000 spectators were jammed in like sardines was a wall of noise. How they even managed to find room to breathe in is a mystery." Charlton also treasures his first international goal (England's fourth in a 4-0 slaughter of the Scots), scored with a rare header from a cross provided by Tom Finney. "Can you imagine how I felt? A teenager on the same pitch and same team as Tom Finney. Two months previously, I'd been an unknown United reserve. I was so embarrassed I had to steel myself to run over to Tom and say 'thanks'. Because there wasn't a single England fan in the crowd - and if there was one he sensibly kept quiet - all you could hear was this deafening silence. I could even hear the sound of the ball lashing against the net.

"As I was running back for the kick-off I felt someone pulling my arm. When I looked round I saw it was the Scotland goalkeeper Tommy Younger. 'Good goal, son', he growled 'good goal'. Looking back, it's fair to say that I didn't deserve to be picked to play for England at that age. I reckon the selectors felt sorry for me in the aftermath of the Munich air tragedy." Two years later, Charlton and his future Old Trafford buddy Denis Law met on the field of sporting battle for the first time.

"We were only seconds into the game when I received a pass way out on the left. I sent over a cross and suddenly I was lying on my back with Denis grinning down at me. If you'll excuse the Billy Connolly impersonation - 'See you Charlton. You Sassenach. Aye, you're no' at Old Trafford noo, are you, pal? . . .'" Charlton inflicted painful rev-enge at Wembley in '63 when England won 9-3, a humiliating interlude to be forgotten north of the border in 1967 when Scotland became the first team to defeat the "Auld Enemy" at Wembley since the World Cup.

"Oh, we knew it had to happen one day, that we had to lose to someone after winning the World Cup," recalls Sir Bobby. "But the fact it was Scotland made it all the more painful. When I returned to Old Trafford for pre-season training after the 1966 World Cup, Denis [Law] could barely bring himself to look at me. He muttered something about hoping I'd had a nice holiday and turned away. Which is why to this day Denis will tell you how that victory in '67 made the Scots world champions."

Aye, let the fun and games begin anew... sports@thenational.ae