This is a tale of footballing wit. Of leaving Marco van Basten raging. Of being described as a Brazilian in an Indian’s body. And of not telling your girlfriend that you’re going to Finland for a fortnight.

It’s a story of a team without a spine, but not lacking backbone. One laden with talent, both unfulfilled and otherwise, and led by two future national team managers.

They remain the only Scottish side ever to have won a major international tournament at any age group when they claimed the 1982 European Championship at under-18 level. And this is their story…

Cup finals, exams & lost stars

“I said I was going away studying… but then she saw the back page of the papers.”

Pat Nevin was never particularly enamoured with the idea of being a footballer. A “very serious-minded young chap”, he recoiled at the notion of telling people that he was one, lest they be seduced by the glamour of him playing part-time for Clyde.

His girlfriend knew about his Saturday secret, but Nevin kept his international activities quiet. And why not? As one of the few players in Andy Roxburgh’s squad not signed as a professional, he wasn’t sure he’d get a game in Finland.

“I was a part-time footballer and a full-time business studies student, that was my mindset,” he says. “There were probably team-talks where I wasn’t concentrating because I was thinking about economic theory…”

Others were more focused on football. Centre-back Neale Cooper and forward Eric Black had both established themselves as part of Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen side – so much so that they, along with goalkeeper Bryan Gunn, were unavailable for the finals because it clashed with the Scottish Cup final against Rangers.

All three had been part of the team that beat England 3-2 on aggregate to qualify; a 1-0 win at Ibrox followed by a 2-2 draw in Coventry. “That was the moment people started to think ‘oh aye, this lot are no bad’,” recalls Roxburgh, now 76. “But the Aberdeen boys being out put a dampener on things because they were the spine of the team.”

Their absence called for a little ingenuity on the part of the coach and his assistant, Walter Smith. “We had no clear-cut striker, so we ended up being ahead of our time by playing what they’d now call a ‘false nine’,” Roxburgh recalls, proudly.

Nevin and Tottenham prodigy Ally Dick were the two furthest forward players, but were detailed to occupy wide areas, with Hearts midfielder Gary Mackay breaking into the space between them. And the plan worked. Albania were thrashed 3-0, and Turkey eased aside 2-0, meaning a draw with the Netherlands would be enough to advance.

“I sent Walter to watch them,” Roxburgh says. “He came back and said: ‘No chance. The boy Marco van Basten is magnificent, Gerald Vanderburg in midfield is terrific, and the goalkeeper is outstanding’. And I remember saying we’d just have to fight them, in that case.”

Van Basten gave the Dutch the lead, but a late leveller by Dundee United defender Gary McGinnis put the Scots through to a semi-final with Poland, beaten finalists 12 months earlier. “They were physically strong but I felt we were in no danger technically,” says Nevin. “You could tell five or 10 minutes in ‘we can do them’. “

And the Scots did, earning a comfortable 2-0 victory to set up a final with Czechoslovakia. But Nevin had a problem. He was scheduled to have a university exam the afternoon after the final.

“When we reached the semis, I was gubbed because I had to knuckle down to my studying,” he says. “I worked out I could manage both if we reached the final, but my one worry was that the plane would be delayed.”

‘We weren’t able to drink’

As it was, Nevin played and scored – along with Mackay and John Philliben – and Scotland secured a straightforward 3-1 victory to become European champions.

“It was brilliant,” says Hamilton Academical head coach Brian Rice, then a Hibernian youngster. “We were only babies, so we weren’t able to drink… officially. We found a bar, had something to eat, then some of us had a couple of drinks and had a carry on and a sing song.”

Nevin dodged the celebrations and “went straight to my room and my books” before catching his flight the next morning and ambling straight from the airport to the exam hall, where he was met by his gawping peers. This, after all, was a young man who had scored a stunning goal for Scotland in a major final the night before.

“Roxy was good on unusual set pieces but we made a mess of it and the ball dropped to me,” he said of his strike. “I had four Czechs running at me and I just dribbled right through them, did the keeper, and tapped it in. If there is one goal I’d love to have on video, it’s that one. Just to see if it is as good as I think it was.”

The Finnish press certainly thought so. On the plane, Nevin spotted a picture of himself on the back page of a fellow passenger’s newspaper and asked him to translate the caption. “Apparently, it said ‘Nevin played really well, very skilful, he’s a Brazilian in an Indian body’ because I was darker skinned than them. But after that slight notoriety, I was back to Clyde.”

Not that Nevin was without offers. The forward turned down Chelsea that summer “because I still didn’t want to be a footballer”, while Roxburgh tells a tale of a Turkish FA official at that summer’s World Cup finals in Spain asking him how much it would take to tempt the attacker away.

As it was, a deal would eventually be struck with Chelsea, but first Nevin and his Scotland team-mates had the under-19 World Cup to play the following summer. But that tournament is another tale entirely…

Scotland’s European champions
Robin Rae (Hibernian), Dave Beaumont (Dundee United), John Philliben (Stirling Albion), David Rennie (Leicester City), Brian Rice (Hibernian), Paul McStay (Celtic), Dave Bowman (Hearts), Gary McGinnis (Dundee United), Pat Nevin (Clyde), Gary Mackay (Hearts), Ally Dick (Tottenham). The substitutes for the final were Ian Westwater (Hearts), Billy Livingstone (Wolves) and Sammy McGivern (Kilmarnock). Jim Dobbin missed the game through injury and Celtic team-mate Jim McInally was suspended.