Ally McCoist is explaining why another generation of Scottish footballers cannot miss out on the joy of playing at a major tournament.
It takes him the best part of three hours over lunch to do so, but therein lies his reason – the memories.
On Thursday, Scotland face Serbia in their Euro 2020 playoff. Win and they qualify for what will be their first European Championships in 25 years, and 23 since their last World Cup.
Ally McCoist says Scottish footballers can’t miss out on playing in a major tournament
McCoist’s 25-yard strike to beat Switzerland at Villa Park during Euro ’96 remains the last match they won at a major finals. His retelling of that goal is as vivid as the moment the ball left his boot.
‘That’s why I want these boys to make it,’ says the 58-year-old. ‘Because you see, I remember every minute as if it was yesterday. I know the happiness and pride it brings. So I hope they go and do it for themselves, what an opportunity.’
The Rangers legend has picked a quiet corner of his favourite restaurant in Bridge of Weir near Glasgow to reminisce. Quiet, you figure, so that he can be loud, because to unlock McCoist’s memories is like blowing the hinges off a safe.
McCoist’s biggest regret from an 18-year career that brought 424 goals is him not taking the penalty missed by Gary McAllister against England at Euro ’96.
That is not to criticise his room-mate – McAllister struck it well down the middle and David Seamen saved – but rather McCoist, on as a substitute, fancied himself to score.
He whips his arm across the table to demonstrate where he would have put it. ‘To Seamen’s right, right in the corner. If it’s 1-1 we wouldn’t have lost. But within a minute, a moment of genius, 2-0.’
The genius was his Rangers team-mate, friend and neighbour: Paul Gascoigne.
‘I can still see it happening now. He flicks the ball over big Colin Hendry but even as it’s dropping I’m thinking, “This isn’t easy, it needs a helluva skill to hit it first time, on the volley, and beat Andy Goram.’
McCoist pauses, the appreciation evident.
McCoist’s (above) scored a 25-yard strike to beat Switzerland at Villa Park during Euro ’96
‘But this was Gascoigne. Of course he beat him, it was brilliant. As painful as it is to watch, you can never stop admiring the beauty. It’s one of the greatest goals ever and he even manages to top it with the “dentist’s chair” celebration. Only Gascoigne.
‘And I’ll tell you how good that goal was, when he came back to Rangers he never mentioned it. You see, if it had been a tap-in, or gone in off his backside, he would have made our lives hell. But he knew it was something special, it spoke for itself.’
Scotland needed a favour from England against Holland in the final group game, providing they could beat Switzerland themselves.
‘We were low. Craig Brown said we should have a beer in the hotel. Gary Mac was in our room, distraught, adamant he wasn’t coming down. I kept on at him. “Come on, what’s wrong? It’s not as if you’ve missed a penal… Ah, you’re right mate, just stay where you are”. He started laughing and came for a beer. It was the lift we needed.’
McCoist was recalled after being benched in the opening two matches. After 36 minutes McAllister rolled the ball into his path and he smashed first time into the top corner.
‘You beauty,’ he says. ‘I never thought I’d score one like that.’
He celebrated by making straight for the dugout.
‘I was getting stick from the boys, “Look at Ally, running over to Craig”. I said, “You’re f***ing joking? I was telling him that’s what he could have had the first two games!”.’
With England 4-0 up approaching the final 10 minutes at Wembley, Scotland were heading for their first-ever second round. But then Patrick Kluivert nutmegged Seamen and swung the goal difference back in favour of the Dutch.
His biggest regret is not taking the penalty Gary McAllister missed against England at Euro ’96
‘Big man should have saved it!’ laughs McCoist. ‘But it was typical Scotland, glorious failure. It wasn’t down to England, they did us a huge turn. We should have scored two against Switzerland – or at least let me take the penalty against England!’
McCoist was back in Glasgow by the time England played Germany in the semi-final. Did he want them to win?
‘Absolutely. I still get stick about it up here. When I’m on the park, Jesus, I’d do anything to beat them. But when we’re out, I’d rather my mates like Gascoigne won.’
Gascoigne, of course, came within inches of scoring a Golden Goal before England were beaten on penalties.
‘I was up out of my sofa. He stops for a split second because he thinks the keeper will get a touch. He’s that clever, he’s trying to readjust. And you know something, the keeper should have got a touch.’
There is something both warm and admiring about the way McCoist calls him ‘Gascoigne’. Stories about the pair are plentiful, including the night McCoist found Gazza making a sandwich in his kitchen at 3am.
McCoist said he wanted his friend Paul Gascoigne to beat Germany in the semi-final
‘I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, I thought it was a burglar! I went down with a golf club and there he is, buttering his bread, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world and I’m the idiot for asking what the hell he’s doing!’
How did Gazza get in?
‘This is where Gascoigne’s clever. He’d heard me tell my missus a few weeks earlier to use the spare key we kept by the oak tree. So he wakes up hungry with no food in the fridge and decides to use mine! I just went back to bed and left him to it.’
Contact between them now is occasional, and you can detect McCoist’s concern and sorrow. ‘I just pray that he is happy and healthy.’
But there was a lighter moment during the 2018 World Cup, where McCoist was part of the ITV commentary team. ‘I get a text from him. “What do you call a Scotsman at a World Cup…? Coisty!”. Brilliant.’
They both played at Italia ’90 but were controversially dropped ahead of France ’98.
‘I didn’t smash up the manager’s room like he did, but I was ill. The worst I’ve ever felt. No one will ever convince me that I wasn’t the best man for a goal if we needed one. Myself and Paul spoke, we called everyone everything under the sun. It was a savage blow for him. We were both heartbroken.’
But there are happier memories from Italy, even if a dose of black humour is needed to bring light to Scotland’s infamous 1-0 defeat by Costa Rica.
McCoist spent the majority of his career at Rangers and is still their record goalscorer with 355
‘It was our opening game. I was rooming with big Alan McInally. Andy Roxburgh was manager. He gives us the team, “I’m gonna start with Mo (Johnston) n Ally”. At least that’s what I’ve heard. He’d actually said, “Nally”. So I’m right tuned in to things. Eventually, the penny drops, “F*** me, I’m not playing”.
‘I’m back in the room, raging, when I hear McInally coming along the corridor, like a drunk, singing Flower of Scotland, winding me right up.
‘He comes in and I’ve got my head down, doing a puzzle. He says, “Here you”. “Yeah, what is it?”. “Get that f***ing light off, some of us have got a game tomorrow!”. Fair play, that’s genius.
‘But there is a happy ending… he was f***ing hopeless. So Roxbrugh reads the team out for Sweden. The good news is he’s not playing. The bad news is I’m not either!
‘But every dog has its day. We get back to the room and I say, “Here you”. And I toss him the puzzle book. “You can help me with that tonight, can’t you!”.’
Scotland beat Sweden 2-1 but then lost 1-0 to Brazil and were out.
If Scotland beat Serbia they qualify for their first European Championships in 25 years
‘At least I started against Brazil. We were going through until another late goal did for us. But what an experience, still the best World Cup for me. Pavarotti, Schillaci, Gazza, McInally! Great memories. That’s why you have to be there.’
If Scotland do beat Serbia then supporters will be toasting victory from home. The country is under ‘prohibition’ and not even McCoist can open the doors to a speakeasy.
Perhaps that is just as well, because the dad-of-five is up at 5am for his co-hosting shift on talkSPORT Breakfast (every Monday-Thursday, 6-10am).
‘I’ve got mates who don’t enjoy their work, but I would be sitting here talking about sport anyway. So I appreciate everything I’ve got. Some boys aren’t lucky enough to have that, and I include Paul, he has never been able to replace football, and you need to.’
McCoist in person over lunch is the same as on radio over breakfast – gregarious, sharp, entertaining. But he happily admits that his former Rangers team-mate and manager Graeme Souness is the best in the business.
‘He’s magic. Another pundit will answer the question. He waits his turn and you can see him thinking, “Now it’s time for the correct answer”.
McCoist says former Rangers team-mate and manager Graeme Souness is the best in punditry
‘But what a footballer. He knew how to change a game with one pass or tackle. I mean, I call them “tackles”… I showed my sons Graeme’s showreel on YouTube recently. It included that one against Steaua Bucharest, studs in the fella’s groin. My boys said, “Dad, you should have been booked for trying to defend him to the referee!”.’
There is another tale of a training match when Souness, then player-manager, clashed with Ian Durrant, who goaded him by saying, ‘Is that the best you’ve got?’. Souness responded, ‘No, this is’ and duly punched him to the floor, sparking a brawl.
‘We were in the dressing-room waiting for Souness to go off it,’ says McCoist. ‘But he walks in, “That’s the spirit, lads!”.’
How Scotland could do with Souness and McCoist among their number in Belgrade this week.
‘For a lot of years the quality just hasn’t been there. If we’re honest, we haven’t deserved to be at major tournaments. But this team do. For the first time in a long while we’ve got players at the top level – Andy Robertson, Scott McTominay, Kieran Tierney. John McGinn is different class.’
McCoist was part of the last Scottish generation to be considered among the game’s very best players. He twice won Europe’s Golden Boot and once came 21st in the Ballon d’Or.
‘I would never say I was one of the top players in the world, but I always felt on top of the world, that I would score every time I played. And yet I was still dropped for McInally against Costa Rica!’