1896 - Scotland-England International

On 28th March 1896 Scotland was to Ireland in Belfast. Having been 0-1 up after seven minutes it at half-time found itself 3-2 down by half-time and was only able to scrabble a draw in the seventy eighth minute. That game had followed a good win a week earlier at home to Wales but a bad loss to England the best part of a year earlier made all the worse by the victors actually being captained by a Scot, John Goodall. And that loss to the Auld enemy had been the latest of series over the previous years of the decade. 

Moreover, the Scots team field on that day in 1896 was at the best very strange. Three seasons after professionalisation of the game North of the Border four were amateurs, albeit that they did include Toffee McColl and future club manager of great note, John Cameron. However, both were just twenty years old. Furthermore at centre-half it had, despite Celtic having topped the league, recalled the esteemed yet somewhat struggling James Kelly. He had not played for Scotland since 1894. He was playing two thirds of the club games he had at his peak. And he was to retire altogether from playing at the end of the following season. But the national problem was that no-one had really been found to replace him. Several Scots-based alternatives had been tried but without conspicuous success with it becoming clear that there was a potential shoe-in, but one, James Cowan, who, under the then rules, could not be selected. 

The reason for that inability was simple. Seven years earlier in 1889 Cowan had been one of the many players from Renton and the other clubs in the Vale of Leven to be tempted away. He had gone as a reserve and at the age of just twenty-one, had been for a couple of seasons peripheral but with physical and game maturity emerged to make the position of attacking centre-half, the Scottish centre-half, his own. However, the club, at which this had been achieved was Aston Villa, English and therefore under Scottish Football Association (SFA) rules of the time outwith the pool. 

It effectively meant that in 1896 the SFA had a choice; do nothing and expect more defeats or change the rules and to its credit for the England-Scotland fixture of 4th April that year it chose the latter opening the doors not just for Cowan but others. Behind him Ned Doig, capped before he too had gone south to Blackburn and then Sunderland, came back into goal and brought in at left-back, from Blackburn also, was Tom Brandon for a first cap. This was whilst in front of him Jack Bell returned on the left-wing for a third international appearance four years after his previous one and the quirky Bryce Scoular, aka Tommy Hyslop, then of Stoke, took the number nine shirt. 

Scotland was two up in thirty-three minutes, goals from Lambie, the last surviving Queen's Parker, and Bell. England pulled one back ten minutes from the end but the job was done. Moreover, Scotland won the Home Championship again and would win six games in a row. The run was only ended in 1898 when Cowan is said, again against England, to have been drunk, the game was lost 1-3 at home, two of the English goals by Steve Bloomer at centre-forward. Cowan, at thirty, never played for Scotland again. 

However, it seems the losing mould had been broken. Soon enough replacements were found for the Villa man, culminating in Alex Raisbeck of Polmont and Liverpool and beyond him to Charlie Thomson of Prestonpans, Hearts and then Sunderland. Losses became a rarity for a decade, with other positions on the field now also filled from the widest pool possible of Scots plying their trade on both side of the border.

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