Scotland: 1990 World Cup qualifiers


Having qualified for four straight World Cup tournaments, Scotland were probably relatively confident going into this qualification, despite the fact that they had failed to cause much stir in the previous qualifiers, those ahead of the 1988 European Championships. At least on behalf of themselves. It has to be said that they did their near neighbours Republic of Ireland a wonderful service by winning 1-0 away to Bulgaria in their penultimate qualifier, something which paved way for the Irish to make it through to a continental tournament for the first time in their history. Ending that campaign with a goalless draw in Luxembourg was hardly how the Scottish wanted to be remembered. Read more…


Qualifier 1
14.09.1988, Ullevaal Stadion (Oslo)
Norway 1-2 Scotland
Goals: McStay, Johnston
Line-up (4-4-2): Leighton – Gillespie, Miller, McLeish, Malpas – Gallacher, Aitken (c) (Durrant 58), McStay, Nicol – McClair, Johnston
Two points from an opening qualification away fixture is what dreams are made of, and Scotland secure their win after a workmanlike performance. They are physically stronger than their opponents, and they capitalize from a piece of ‘poacher’s instinct’ as Johnston fires home a winner in the second half. Captain Aitken had been substituted in fear of him receiving a second yellow.

Qualifier 2
19.10.1988, Hampden Park (Glasgow)
Scotland 1-1 Yugoslavia
Goal: Johnston
Line-up (4-4-2): Goram – Gough, Miller (c), McLeish, Malpas – Nicol, Aitken (Speedie 70), McStay, Bett (McCoist 55) – Johnston, McClair
The Scottish continued their qualification with a strong point against a solid Yugoslavian outfit, although it could’ve been even better had McCoist’s late strike not been kept out by Ivković. Scotland had battled well all game, and they were good value for the draw, having moved ahead through Johnston’s second goal in two qualifiers. Taking Bett off early in the second half improved the Scots.

22.12.1988 Italy 2-0 Scotland
Line-up (5-3-2): Goram – Malpas, Gough (Speedie 87), Narey, McLeish, MacLeod – McStay (McClair 56), Aitken (c), I. Ferguson (Durie 76) – Gallacher, Johnston
A slightly depleted Scotland squad proved too lightweight for Italy in this friendly encounter. The hosts probably dominated to a greater extent in the first half than they did in the final 45 minutes, though both goals came after the break. Gough was adjudged, softly, to have fouled Serena for Giannini’s spot-kick goal, and later they added a second through a fine header. Roxburgh opted for a rare 5-3-2 formation in which he experimented somewhat with several players.

Qualifier 3
08.02.1989, Tsíreio Stádio (Limassol)
Cyprus 2-3 Scotland
Goals: Johnston, Gough 2
Line-up (4-4-2): Leighton – Gough, Narey, McLeish, Malpas – Nicol (Ferguson 10), Aitken (c), McStay, McClair – Speedie (McInally 69), Johnston
It was back to 4-4-2 for Roxburgh as they sought to add another two points to their tally and catch up with leaders Yugoslavia. They did move in front early through Johnston, the striker’s third goal in three qualifiers, but they failed to protect their lead for long, with Cyprus soon levelling. On a terrible pitch, Scotland opted for long balls, though they needed to come back from a goal down with defender Gough an unlikely two goal hero, the last of those six minutes into time added on. Ultimately, the Scottish team would need to seek refuge among the riot police to not be confronted with the many angry home supporters.

Qualifier 4
08.03.1989, Hampden Park (Glasgow)
Scotland 2-0 France
Goals: Johnston 2
Line-up (4-4-2): Leighton – Gough, Gillespie, McLeish (c), Malpas – Nicol, Aitken, McStay, Ferguson – McCoist, Johnston.

Qualifier 5
26.04.1989, Hampden Park (Glasgow)
Scotland 2-1 Cyprus
Goals: Johnston, McCoist
Line-up (4-4-2): Leighton – Gough, MacPherson, McLeish, Malpas – Nevin (Nicholas 74), Aitken (c), McStay, Durie (Speedie 59) – McCoist, Johnston
Yet another Johnston goal, his sixth in five qualifiers, set Scotland on their march for another win, taking them further ahead of the chasing pack in the group. They had big MacPherson making his debut at the back, and involved both Nevin and Durie along the flanks in an attacking set-up. They had to see Cyprus pin them back just after the hour, before a moment of sheer brilliance by McStay set McCoist up for the winner.

27.05.1989 Scotland 0-2 England
Line-up (4-4-2): Leighton – McKimmie, MacPherson, McLeish, Malpas – Nevin, Aitken (c), McStay, Connor (Grant 58) – McCoist, Johnston
Scotland would feel the absence of leading defender Gough, and they’d relinquish initiative almost from the start, and they were deservedly behind after the opening period, having conceded a 20th minute header. They lacked width, although Nevin did his best to address this. However, he was sadly alone. Debutant Grant showed some good battling skills after coming on, and Scotland almost capitalized with a goal of their own until their fight eventually fizzled out.

30.05.1989 Scotland 2-0 Chile
Goals: McInally, MacLeod
Line-up: Leighton (c) – McKimmie, Gillespie (Whyte 70), McLeish, Malpas – Aitken, Grant, McStay, MacLeod – Speedie (Johnston h-t), McInally
Leighton’s 50th cap, hence his captaincy. This ensured him and his family free tickets for all future Scotland internationals. An early McInally goal and a second half MacLeod strike, both respective first in country colours, ensured Scotland finishing second in the 1989 edition of Rous Cup. Video: photos (worth seeing)

Qualifier 6
06.09.1989, Stadion Maksimir (Zagreb)
Yugoslavia 3-1 Scotland
Goal: Durie
Line-up (4-4-2): Leighton – Gillespie, Miller, McLeish, Malpas – Nicol, Aitken (c), McStay, MacLeod – Durie (McInally 75′), McCoist.
Scotland ship in three goals in the space of six minutes in the 2nd half, as they finally crumble to Yugoslavia’s pressure. Roxburgh attempts to strengthen his central midfield by instructing left midfielder MacLeod to tuck in, but it’s no help against Yugoslavia’s ball players. Game is over after the hour mark, as Scotland focus on damage control for the rest of the game. But as usual, they look a team more than capable of scoring goals.

Qualifier 7
11.10.1989, Parc des Princes (Paris)
France 3-0 Scotland
Line-up (4-4-2): Leighton – Nicol, Gough, McLeish, Malpas – Strachan (McInally 64), Aitken (c), McStay, MacLeod (Bett 76) – Johnston, McCoist
A second successive away defeat leaves Scottish qualification in danger. Possession wise they’re sound in Paris, but they have little penetration, and particularly lack wide threat. McCoist close to scoring on a few occasions, whilst Scotland look indecisive defensively, where Gough’s appearing at centre-half for the first time in the qualification. The French have defender Di Meco sent off early second half, but even against ten men the visitors can’t take advantage. At least a point is now needed against Norway.

Qualifier 8
15.11.1989, Hampden Park (Glasgow)
Scotland 1-1 Norway
Goal: McCoist
Line-up (4-4-2): Leighton – MacPherson, Miller (MacLeod 67), McLeish, Malpas – Aitken (c), McStay, Bett, Cooper (McClair 74) – Johnston, McCoist
At least a draw was what Scotland were needing in order to make their passage through to another World Cup, and a draw was what they would get, although they had been unlucky not to win. The Norwegians were playing for little but pride, and the home side had the better of proceedings, even creating a number of opportunities, only to be denied by the excellent goalkeeping of Thorstvedt. However, McCoist would put Scotland in front right on the stroke of half-time, and from then on a defeat never seemed likely. Second half opportunities were wasted, with the Norway ‘keeper again unbeatable, and at the death Leighton would spill Johnsen’s hopeful 45 yard effort across the goalline. Too late for a comeback, and Scotland and their fans could celebrate a fifth straight World Cup qualification.


Scotland qualify for their fifth consecutive World Cup. Finishing second in the group probably reflects their standing: behind the impressive Yugoslavians, but ahead of the French, who struggled to find form before it was too late.

There were plenty of goals in Scotland’s qualifiers, 24 all in all (12 for and 12 against). Mo Johnston was the second top goal scorer in the European qualification, and the partnership between him and McCoist proved a vast success. They always looked like a team with goals in them, and continued creating chances in every game – even the 3-0 defeat in Paris could easily have gone otherwise. 

But this was also a side that was shipping goals. They conceded three times in both the away games against their fiercest rivals, Yugoslavia and France, during autumn 1989. Against Yugoslavia, they had crumbled to a long-lasting pressure to concede three times within the space of six minutes, revealing a very nervous defence. The big weakness in this respect was not necessarily only the four at the back, but perhaps more significantly the midfield bank of four.

Remarkably, 6 of the 12 goals that Scotland let in resulted from set-pieces. There is no question that there was plenty of aerial abilities in the team (McLeish, Gough etc.), they evidently struggled to pick up their men and continued leaking goals in these situations throughout the qualification. 

Roxburgh maintained a 4-4-2 formation for the entire campaign (although experimenting with a 5-3-2 in a friendly in December 1988). This was a formation no doubt fitting to their more direct playing style, which relied heavily on the work rate of the two forwards. Creativity was otherwise lacking in midfield, although McStay stood out as one of the most eminent performers of the team.

The one big issue Roxburgh had with this formation, was the left midfield position, where he simply couldn’t find any appropriate player. Roxburgh tested a number of players, and eventually only Murdo MacLeod – a defensive midfielder – started more than one game in this troubled position.


Final position: 2 (out of 5 – qualified)
Total record: 8 4 2 2 12-12 10
Home record: 4 2 2 0 6-3 8
Away record: 4 2 0 2 6-9 4

Player statistics

Number of players used: 27
Number of players including unused substitutes: 32
Ever-presents (720 mins): 3 (Malpas, McLeish, McStay)
Leading goalscorer: 6 (Johnston)
Yellow/red cards: 4/0

– overview

Ferguson, I.211136
McInally, A.33162
McInally, J. 1

– game by game

PlayerNor (a)Yug (h)Cyp (a)Fra (h)Cyp (h)Yug (a)Fra (a)Nor (h)PlayedMinutes
Ferguson, I80561+1136
McInally, A211526R+362
McInally, JR

– ratings

PosPlayerAverage ratingNumber of rated games
2Johnston 7,216
3Gough 7,204
4McLeish 7,047
Explanation to table: Total number of rated games: 7. A player must have featured for four or more matches in order to be considered.


28.03.1990 Scotland 1-0 Argentina

25.04.1990 Scotland 0-1 East Germany

16.05.1990 Scotland 1-3 Egypt

28.05.1990 Malta 1-2 Scotland

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