Football History

Great Reputations: Scotland’s “Wee Blue Devils” of 1928

Scotland’s 1928 heroes about to meet the Duke of York (George VI). Photo: PA

IRONICALLY, two of England’s most documented and discussed games happen to be defeats – Hungary’s win in 1953 and two and a half decades earlier, England 1 Scotland 5. The Scots have never forgotten how they humbled their fierce rivals at Wembley in 1928 and the defeat stands alongside other defining moments in history when the English have had their noses blooded by the tartan hordes.

This was in a time when England – in blind ignorance to a certain degree – thought they were the best in the world. Given they were not FIFA members and international football was mainly the home internationals and the occasional tour game, neither England nor their self-garlanded crown of being the world’s top football nation, could ever be tested.

As for Scotland, if they beat England, that was enough to have local bragging honours. In 1928, two years before the first FIFA World Cup, the Scots earned the right to talk about the events of March 31 for the next 90 years.

Certainly, the Scots had the upper hand on England in the 1920s, suggesting that “best in the world” was a false and unproven claim from the Football Association.

In England, the 1926-27 Football League champions were Newcastle United. Seven of the Magpies’ regular team were Scottish. The FA Cup winners were Cardiff City, whose team contained four from north of the border. English football was, effectively, full of talented Scots, so it was no wonder the Scotland team to face England at Wembley comprised eight “Anglos”.

Not that this pleased the local media at the time, or indeed some Scottish fans when they heard the selection a few days before the game, from the steps of the Scottish Football Association, declaring, “Yon team’s nae chance”. There were no Celtic players in this team, just one from the “old firm”, the veteran Alan Morton from Glasgow Rangers.

Nobody could have predicted that Scotland would create a seismic shock in London, primarily because their team contained a forward line that had nobody above 5ft 7in – in the age of high balls lofted into the area. In addition, their current form was not especially good and just before the match at Wembley, a Football League XI had thrashed a Scottish League XI at Ibrox Park – a reason why the team for the big clash was mostly domiciled in England.

Indeed, Scotland lost at home to Northern Ireland at the end of February 25 with a team that included just one “Anglo”, six drawn from the “old firm” and two apiece from Motherwell and Hibernian. Only two of that team, Jimmy Dunn and Alan Morton, would line-up at Wembley 36 days later.

It would be the only time this particular XI would play together for their country. Of the eleven Tommy Bradshaw, despite his performance, and Dunn would never appear again for Scotland, and Tommy law and James Nelson would only win one more cap. Jimmy Gibson had two more outings in the dark blue shirt and skipper Jimmy McMullan played three more games. It was easy to assume that Scotland had assembled a team to “do a job” on their hosts!

But it was a team that had a high degree of quality about it. The forward line included several notable players – Alex Jackson, Hughie Gallacher, Alex James and Alan Morton were all among the most revered players of their generation. That said, Gallacher’s inclusion was not universally popular – the firebrand had been out of the game for a while and his general demeanour was not entirely appreciated outside Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he had inspire the team to the league title.

Gallacher was, however, in his pomp. In 1926-27, he scored 36 goals in Newcastle’s last championship. In 1927-28, he netted 21 in 32 appearances. Sadly, Gallacher always came with baggage and his lifestyle and behaviour – he would smoke up to 40 Woodbine cigarettes a day – often saw him rail against the establishment.

Alex Jackson was another charismatic player and a member of Huddersfield’s 1925-26 title team. Jackson was known as the “Gay Cavalier” for his dashing style, poise and guile. He was only 22 years of age, but within four years, his career was in disarray as he fell-out with Chelsea, the club he joined in 1930.

Inside forward Alex James became one of the 1930s’ most influential players. In 1928, he was with Preston North End player, but a year later, he joined the rising power that was Arsenal. James only won eight caps for Scotland, but he had his mark on much of Arsenal’s success across the next decade.

Players like Gallacher, Jackson and James were teased mercilessly for the way the Football League team had trounced their Scottish counterparts at Ibrox. “The baiting served Scotland well,” said Sandy Anderson in the Evening News.

The match was a battle between the old and the emerging. English football, in the post-McCracken world, was moving into a more machine-like efficient era, championed by the likes of Arsenal under Herbert Chapman. Scottish football was still tied to its tradition of crafted football based on passing and slick movement.

On the eve of the match, Jimmy McMullan told his team to “got to bed and pray for rain” and lo and behold, there was a downpour on the day. The game would be played on a greasy pitch by fleet-footed players who zipped across the turf – well, those in dark blue shirts, that is.

After surviving an early shot from Huddersfield’s Billy Smith that hit the woodwork, Scotland went ahead after three minutes, Jackson heading a cross by the irrepressible Alan Morton past Ted Hufton. By the 66th minute, Scotland were four goals to the good. James had dribbled his way to the second goal in the 44th minute and Jackson had converted another Morton cross on 65. James scored the fourth seconds later after Gallacher had been felled by a heavy tackle. Five minutes from time the crowd of 80,000 was treated to a classic goal, shot home by Jackson from another cross from Morton. “The whole netting structure shuddered as if an elephant had leaned against it,” reported the Evening News. England’s only response came in the 89th minute from Bob Kelly.

“Never has the Scottish style of play been more gloriously confirmed in its correctness,” said Ivan Sharpe in his assessment of the game. “The greatest display of my time….that is football, the real thing.”

Alex James felt that Scotland “could have scored 10”, while others declared the end of the English game, one that relied on power and speed. Scotland’s stylish football had demonstrated that the virtuous short-passing game could still be stunning to watch, but alas, Scotland’s success did not signal a new era. Both England and Scotland didn’t rejoin FIFA until after the second world war and Scotland didn’t play a non-British team until 1929 when they went on a summer tour to Europe, playing Norway, Germany and the Netherlands.

Nevertheless, the “Wee Blue Devils” of 1928 will live on forever and come March 2018, it will be 90 years since they delivered a huge blow to the morale of the English game. For the record, they were:

Jack Harkness (Queens Park); James Nelson (Cardiff City), Tommy Law (Chelsea); Jimmy Gibson (Aston Villa), Tommy Bradshaw (Liverpool), Jimmy McMullan (Manchester City); Alex Jackson, Jimmy Dunn, Hughie Gallacher, Alex James, Alan Morton.

 

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