When, in March 1990, Will Carling’s England side travelled to Edinburgh to attempt to clinch a Grand Slam against Scotland, I no longer played rugby but spent most of my winter weekend Saturdays watching it. I went to the majority of England’s home games at Twickenham and I managed to get hold of a couple of tickets for the Scotland match. I travelled up to Edinburgh from London with a friend the day before the game. It proved to be an interesting weekend, and my head was still swimming with the resonances of what had happened, when, a couple of weeks later, I wrote this.
As you leave the ‘Red Terrace’ and the East Stand at the Scottish Rugby Union Ground, Murrayfield, Edinburgh, you walk across an area of grass – not really a park, nor simply a collection of nondescript playing fields (though the soccer goals are there) – and on your right is a collection of relatively new flats, designed for, and occupied by, elderly people.
It is easy to imagine the area as a scene of peaceful serenity on a sunny day in the middle of a Scottish summer; lovers kissing, a few lads from one of the local public schools kicking a football around, some of the occupants of the flats tending the gardens that separate them from the open space and the stadium beyond. However, just after four o’clock on March 17th 1990, the area was far from serene. Scotland had beaten England by 13 points to 7 at Murrayfield to win their third Grand Slam, and the crowds surged past the flats in the direction of Princes Street to toast the team that had defeated the side that had previously dominated that season’s International Championship. Being an Englishman at that game, on that day, in that crowd, was an intensely dispiriting experience. As we left the ground and walked past the flats, I noticed that one of the residents had stuck two coloured flags – of St.Andrew and St.George – in their window. The blue and white one, which was noticeably larger, had the number thirteen by it, and the smaller red and white one preceded the number seven. A few of the Scottish supporters in front of us also noticed the flags and cheered. A couple of the pensioners waved from the window. A few yards further on, as we turned the corner into the main road to the city centre, people leaned out of the higher windows in the tenement blocks to wave flags and salute the crowds leaving the ground, doubtless wishing they had been at the match themselves. It occurred to me that, had I been a Scotsman, I would have felt very proud indeed. As it was, I just kept walking, wishing I wasn’t there.
The weekend had started well; a train from King’s Cross on Friday afternoon with hundreds of other England supporters, an evening near Princes Street revisiting places familiar from the previous January, a large breakfast and more walking, talking and drinking before travelling to the ground. I’ve always had a high regard for Scottish rugby and I found it difficult to cultivate the intense passion I had felt before England played Wales a month before, but, by the time we had seen the ground fill and realized what were up against (fifteen players, an immense crowd and the nation beyond), I desperately wanted England to win. This was the best English side for at least a decade – the first to win three Championship matches in a season since 1980 – and it was vital for English rugby that they emphasized their quality by winning their final match of the season, perhaps with something of the style they had shown in their previous games. In the event they failed to play as well as they had before, showing signs of over-confidence and under-preparation as they were beaten by a ferociously committed side, playing well above its usual capabilities. As the second half wore on, with England gaining more and more territorial advantage but making less and less headway in the face of furious tackling, I felt myself sinking further into my shoes by the minute. At one point – I think it was after the Scottish try but it may have been later – Scott Hastings gestured to the West Stand spectators to get to their feet and cheer the team on. ‘Flower of Scotland’ echoed round the ground. With support like that how could they lose?
By the time the final whistle blew I felt sick with frustration and disappointment. We walked all the way back to our hotel and lay down. I turned the radio on and heard Stephen Jones talking about England’s ‘sense of unfulfilment’. I wanted to break the radio but I knew what he meant and agreed with him. Eventually we dragged ourselves out into the celebrations that were enveloping the city. We found a small though expensive restaurant just off the Royal Mile. Fortunately they’d had a cancellation and could accommodate us. We soon became aware that the party opposite us consisting of seven middle-aged Scots and a New Zealander, who, we were told, had been to school with that day’s referee, David Bishop) were drinking toasts to each member of the Scotland side. When they prepared one to Rob Andrew – who had played beautifully in a losing cause – we accepted it with alacrity and humour. After a while Bill Beaumont came in, prompting hilarity from the Scots and pointing out where David Sole had been born. It was an enjoyable evening and we were in a better frame of mind when we caught the long train home (with many of the people we’d seen on Friday, though they were much more subdued) the next day. When I look back at it now I realize that the game was a marvellous occasion at which to be present. The better side won – I recognized that at the time – and the chance to visit Edinburgh again was wonderful.
This morning I met a Scotsman and we discussed the game. ‘I couldn’t believe how confident England were, going into an away game’, he said. ‘It’s alright being the better side but you’ve got to fight’.
He was right. It’s a lesson England need to learn.