Everyone afflicted by the accidents of birth and upbringing that make you a Scottish football fan has to go through a particular rite of passage. There is a time when wide-eyed optimism has to be replaced with a more weather-beaten attitude to the fortunes of the national team. My moment came in the summer of 1982. I was eight years old.
There are family photographs of me wearing the wide-collared Scotland kit of 1978 in our back garden, but my mind has no recollection of any of the other horrors associated with the infamous adventure to Argentina.
An obsession with football was, however, developing nicely – as borne out by an associated addiction to Panini sticker albums – by the time the next World Cup finals rolled around.
Led by the late, great Jock Stein, Scotland arrived in Spain to seek redemption and I had all sorts of scenarios in my mind about what they might achieve.
I paid no heed to my dad when he calmly urged caution after the opening 5-2 victory over New Zealand. Yes, the score had only been 3-2 with 20 minutes remaining against a nation who prefer to kick a different shape of ball, but Scotland had scored five goals. This could only be a promising sign.
When David Narey’s epic ‘toe-poke’ then put Brazil 1-0 down in the second group match, it seemed to me as though that promise was about to be elevated to miraculous levels. I can still remember being puzzled by dad’s relative calm at this development, a calm that remained as he offered consolation for my lip-quivering disbelief at the four Brazilian goals that subsequently flew past Alan Rough. But the defining moment had still to come – the one that made me realise just how painful hope can become when it is invested in Scotland.
It’s an incident the ‘YouTube generation’ can relive time and again, but I’m not that masochistic. Although, I still picture in detail the scene in our living room as we watched Alan Hansen and Willie Miller run into each other during the deciding game against the Soviet Union. It was like something from those Harold Lloyd silent comedies that still got a tea-time airing back then, yet there was no laughter when Ramaz Sheneglia ran through to score.
Hansen was already a European Cup winner. Miller would lead Aberdeen to Cup Winners’ Cup glory just 11 months later. But there they were, colliding on the greatest stage in football to ensure even a late equaliser from Graeme Souness was irrelevant in terms of progression.
Perched on the armchair closest to the television, I sank into the deepest sense of deflation. A lesson about the realities of the football world had been learned. Somehow, though, it didn’t stop me from caring or hoping all over again, time after time in the future.