England vs Scotland: football's greatest rivalry

Jon Batham 15 February 2022

As the oldest international footballing rivalry celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, we take a look at the inspiring history behind it 

The oldest international footballing rivalry celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.

Scotland and England contested the first international back in 1872, and the arch-rivals have been coming to-and-fro over Hadrian’s wall ever since.

The match became an annual event, becoming part of the Home International Championships—a four-nation tournament also involving Northern Ireland and Wales—from 1884 onwards, running for 100 years, interrupted only by the two World Wars of the 20th century.

Here, we journey through some of their epic matches, starting with that very first encounter.

1872: Scotland-0 / England-0

Football’s inaugural international took place at the West of Scotland Cricket Club in Partick, where 4000 spectators were each charged a shilling’s admission. Despite formations which would be deemed bizarre today, Scotland employed six strikers, and England—eight, the match ended goalless. There wouldn’t be another 0-0 draw between the two sides for 98 years.

In something to revive memories of games in the school playground, both goalkeepers, Scotland’s Robert Gardner and England’s Robert Barker swapped their duties as custodians for stints on the pitch in the second half.

"Despite formations which would be deemed bizarre today, Scotland employed six strikers, and England—eight, the match ended goalless"

Scotland’s James and Robert Smith were the first siblings to play international football, the latter later emigrating to Wyoming to enter politics before becoming a newspaper editor.

England’s Charles Clegg become head of the Football Association and the first man to be knighted for services to football when made a sir by King George V in 1927.

Teammate Arnold Kirke Smith would swap the football kit for a dog-collar, serving as vicar for the parish of Bloxham for 38 years until his death in 1927, while Charles Morice became great-grandfather to modern-day acting royalty in the form of siblings James and Edward Fox.

1924: England-1 / Scotland-1

This was the first international at the old Wembley, known officially as the British Empire Exhibition Stadium. Designed by architects Sir John William Simpson and Maxwell Ayrton, it was built at a cost of £750,000, with King George V cutting the first piece of turf for the pitch.

Scotland led when William Cowans’s shot struck the post, hit England keeper Edward Taylor and went in. Billy Walker equalised after half-time, but England couldn’t find a winner and finished bottom of the Home International Championship.

The attendance was 37,250, a miniscule number compared to the record 126,000-plus who witnessed the first cup final at Wembley 12 months earlier, the disparity in part explained by a full programme of league fixtures being staged the same day, something that would never happen today.

"This was the first international at the old Wembley, known officially as the British Empire Exhibition Stadium"

Scotland’s Jimmy McMullan would go on to captain the famous Wembley Wizards team at Wembley in 1928. Both he and England scorer Walker would manage Sheffield Wednesday in the 1930s, the former succeeding the latter and in a strange quirk of fate, both died on the same day in November 1964.

Splendidly named English inside-forward David Bone Nightingale Jack scored the winning goal for Bolton in that first ever FA Cup 12 months previously and repeated the feat in the 25-6 final where Wanderers beat Manchester City 1-0. He became the first footballer to be transferred for a five-figure fee when he moved from Bolton to Arsenal.

Legend has it, Arsenal boss Herbert Chapman got Bolton’s representative drunk on gin and tonic in order to haggle the fee down to £10,000, despite being willing to pay far more! Fancy being ambushed by G&T—and no birthday cake in sight!

1928: England-1 / Scotland-5

Scotland’s biggest win,7-2, came back in 1878, but this face-off was probably their most famous victory with the Scottish heroes thereafter dubbed the “Wembley Wizards.”

Skipper Jimmy McMullan told his team the night before to “Go to your bed and pray for rain,” believing it would suit the small Scottish forwards. The prayers were answered with the game played in a constant deluge with Alex Jackson hitting a hat-trick and Alex James two more in the rout. Maybe god’s a Scot?

Jackson would score eight goals in 17 caps for Scotland. He gained a league winner’s medal with Huddersfield before a spell with Chelsea which ended acrimoniously with him being suspended, transfer-listed and told he would never play for the club again. His crime?

Ordering a round of drinks to his hotel room for him and his teammates the night before a league game with Manchester City in 1932. Chelsea refused to release his registration, meaning Jackson’s professional career was over at 26. Given the misdemeanours of some players in the modern era, either that’s harsh or the game’s gone soft.

James became a pivotal figure in the all-conquering Arsenal team of the 1930s with the club’s archives dubbing him arguably the Dennis Bergkamp of his era. His feats in red and white were all the more remarkable given he wore famously baggy shorts with long johns underneath to combat struggles with rheumatism.

England’s Dixie Dean drew a rare blank on a bad day for England, but would score 18 times in 16 caps for his country. He achieved legendary status at Everton, scoring 350 goals in 400 appearances. Perhaps fitting then he should die of a heart attack on the terraces at Goodison Park while watching the Merseyside derby against Liverpool in 1980.

At a dinner that night, Liverpool boss and close friend of Dean Bill Shankly said: “Dixie was the greatest centre-forward there will ever be. He belongs to the company of the supremely great like Beethoven, Shakespeare and Rembrandt.”

1937: Scotland-3  / England-1

A world record attendance and the biggest crowd gathering since Armistice Day 1918 watched this Scottish triumph. The official attendance at the first all-ticket football international was 149,547, though it’s suspected many more gained access to Hampden Park or found other vantage points to watch the action.

Fred Steele’s shot gave England a half-time lead, but Frank O’Donnell’s leveller paved the way for two late Robert McPhail goals to give the Scots victory.

The vanquished England team featured the great Sir Stanley Matthews, playing just the fourth of his 54 internationals in all, during which he scored 11 goals.

"A world record attendance and the biggest crowd gathering since Armistice Day 1918 watched this Scottish triumph"

Matthews went on to play in two world cups (1950 and ‘54) and won nine Home International Championships. He became the oldest man ever to represent England when aged 42 years and 104 days he earned his final cap against Denmark in Copenhagen in 1957.

He remains the only player ever to be knighted while still playing and was the first ever winner of the Ballon D’or in 1956. Of course, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi weren’t among the nominations back then.

1961: England-9 / Scotland-3

England came into this match off the back of hitting five goals against both Northern Ireland and Wales earlier in the tournament and their scoring streak continued as they recorded a record victory over the “Auld enemy.”

The hosts led 3-0 at half-time before Scotland got it back to 5-3 with 11 minutes to go, but four further goals from England turned the game into a drubbing.

Jimmy Greaves led the goal glut for England with a hat-trick, his third for the national team in a little over six months. Greaves would register six hat-tricks in all for England and by the time of his retirement from international football he’d scored 44 goals in 57 games. The Tottenham and Chelsea legend currently lies fifth in the list of all-time England goal scorers behind Wayne Rooney, Sir Bobby Charlton, Harry Kane and Gary Lineker.

The unfortunate Scottish keeper on the receiving end of this goal blitz was Frank Haffey, playing for just the second time for his country.

He’d saved a penalty from Charlton on debut a year earlier, but was cast aside in the wake of this humiliation and never played for Scotland again.

He later emigrated to Australia where after playing on for a further five years he reinvented himself as a cabaret singer. Given his Wembley nightmare we can safely assume his signature tune wouldn’t have been Max Bygrave’s 1958 hit “You Need Hands.”

So, there we have a whistle-stop tour of some of the great games of yesteryear.

The congested 2022 calendar means there are currently no plans for a 150th anniversary game, but, if Scotland come through the playoffs in March, the two sides could meet on the biggest stage of all at the World Cup in Qatar at the end of the year.

Read more: 100 years of Reader's Digest: A timeline

Read more: Revamp your resolutions for 2022

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter