The European Championship in France brought back poignant memories of the Euro 96 competition 18 years ago in England. The manager of the winning German team had been christened the 'Coca Cola Man’ 10 years earlier by arguably Scotland’s most celebrated sporting personality, Sir Alex Ferguson, although Andy Murray’s heroic Wimbledon exploits at the weekend would offer stiff opposition for that title.
The 'Coca Cola Man' was enthusiastically accepted when engaged to succeed me as Scotland manager in 2002 and I was among the many informed observers who applauded the appointment. Having won the World Cup as a player and the European Championship as a manager, his CV was beyond reproach, so much so that the then Scottish FA president, John McBeth, and chief executive, David Taylor, visited Kuwait and Dusseldorf to secure the services of Bert Vogts.
Why did he become the 'Coca Cola Man’? The nickname was given to Berti by Alex Ferguson when Scotland played Germany in the FIFA World Cup finals in Mexico in 1986. Following the sad and untimely death of Jock Stein, the Aberdeen manager was asked to take interim charge of the Scotland team. It was a great honour for me, as the part-time manager of Clyde FC and full-time lecturer at Craigie College of Education in Ayr, to be invited by Alex to join the coaching staff of an illustrious Scotland squad containing genuine world-class players.
If ever confirmation were required that football is an 'old pals’ act’, that request provided evidence. I remember the phone call from the unadorned Alex, prior to his knighthood: 'Broon, how would you like the holiday of a lifetime…to the World Cup in Mexico? We have three games to play but we won’t let that interfere with our enjoyment'.
I was grateful that my request to the governors of the college for a month’s unpaid leave of absence was successful. This enabled me to join such luminaries of the game as Walter Smith and Archie Knox on the staff and players such as Jim Leighton, Willie Miller, Alex McLeish, Richard Gough, Steve Nicol, Gordon Strachan, Graeme Souness, Steve Archibald, Paul McStay, Charlie Nicholas, Davie Cooper among others.
Our first match was against Denmark in the attractive town with the quaint name, Nezahualcoyotl. A nasty injury had Charlie Nicholas carried off and eliminated for the remainder of the tournament, but it was the knock sustained by Gordon Strachan which resulted in the nomenclature for Berti Vogts. In football, as in other sports, knowledge is power so the doubt about whether or not Gordon would start in the next game against West Germany in Queretaro prompted the West Germany manager, the great Franz Beckenbauer, to send his assistant to spy on the Scotland training at the match venue the day before the game.
Alex Ferguson, as usual, was emphatic that there would be maximum privacy and the host country responded willingly by supplying security in abundance. To those of us involved it was the usual conscientious preparatory session in which Gordon Strachan confirmed he was 100% ready to play. Indeed, he scored the opening goal the following day and celebrated by placing his leg on top of a low advertising board thus providing the photographers with a unique, but very well-circulated, photograph.
In spite of our first half lead we lost the second game, again by the odd goal. The 2-1 defeat effectively killed any hope we had of qualifying from the group, although we felt that a victory over Uruguay was possible in the final group match. This was a mere minor part of the post-match discussion with the opposing coaching staff. To our astonishment it was pointed out that they knew with certainty that Gordon Strachan would be playing. With great pleasure, and no little amusement, Herr Beckenbauer confided in us that Berti had witnessed our training session and had noted everything and that his eyes confirmed that Gordon was fully fit.
The conviviality continued when Berti admitted that, on arrival at the stadium in Queretero, he was refused entrance. He protested that he had travelled a long distance and that his motive was innocent. The steward was adamant but susceptible to a bribe so when the resourceful Berti offered him a German team jersey for his Coca Cola outfit the deal was done. The local co-operative Mexican even lent the spy his barrow to enable him to appear even more like an authentic Coca Cola vendor. Even our obdurate boss, Alex, had to acknowledge that the person he then christened the 'Coca Cola Man’ deserved great credit for his ingenuity.
Later, early in 1992, I got to know Berti better when he became the national manager and we played the West German U21 team in the quarter-final of the European Championship. When it became my turn to spy on the opposition it was Berti who collected me at the airport and become my host for three days. He looked after me famously, driving me kilometre after kilometre in the biggest and best Mercedes in Germany. One of these lengthy journeys was interrupted when he took me to visit his own vineyard and sitting there with a glass of wine he effectively taught me his 3-5-2 system which was the formation used by the then most successful country in Europe at club and international level.
I will always be indebted to Berti for helping me, albeit unwittingly, to beat the West German U21 team and years later triumph over the national team of the combined Germany, managed by Erich Ribbech. Our Scotland team perfected the 3-5-2, especially defensively, to enable us to lose only three goals in 10 games to qualify for Euro 96 and again concede just three in 10 qualifying matches for the FIFA World Cup in France in 1998.
My recollection is that I had only one disagreement with the 'Coca Cola Man', a moniker he was beginning to enjoy. It was after his opening game, a 0-5 defeat in France. As technical director I worked from a nearby office so we chatted regularly. The teutonic game structure was always to have a big, powerful striker and Berti kept asking me for one, remembering the difficulty they had in coping with Duncan Ferguson in U21 matches in Bochum and Aberdeen. After his altercations with the law and the sanctions imposed by the court and the SFA, big Dunc had 'retired’ from international football on a point of principle with which I agreed.
There was no obvious replacement and when Berti’s contention was that a Bierhoff or Klinsmann type was essential I recall saying that Brazil had won the 94 World Cup with two diminutive guys, Romario and Bebeto, both of whom could walk below a bed wearing a top hat. Berti was insistent on physical presence for that position, so much so that he selected Kevin Kyle of Sunderland on occasion.
Although nerve-racking at times it was great driving with him on the autobahn, but it was not a comfortable ride for Berti as the Scotland manager, particularly after that opening debacle against France. Even with Scottish football legend the popular Tommy Burns as his assistant, along with his own Reiner Bonhoff, the defeat seemed inevitable because of some strange team selections. Unfortunately, Berti never really recovered from that and a dispute with one of football’s most intelligent and most respected individuals, David Weir, former player of Falkirk, Hearts, Everton and Rangers, and currently assistant manager of Rangers, didn’t help.
In his enthralling autobiography, ghosted by Douglas Alexander of the Times, David Weir bemoans the fact that 'my fall-out with Berti Vogts cost me more than two years of my international career and maybe 20-odd international caps'. The courteous fellow that he is, and in spite of being publicly criticised by Berti, David diplomatically attributed the German’s difficulties to his language deficiency resulting in poor communication. He resisted the temptation to retaliate by being excessively critical in public although it is apparent that he had ample justification.
Sadly, in my opinion, the unlamented 'Coca-Cola Man' never really mastered the language, couldn’t find a big striker, failed to keep David Weir in the squad and didn’t manage to achieve what everyone expected for our passionate football nation.