Eddie McCreadie wins the ball down the left, then traps it, leaving it sat still on the lush Wembley turf. He doubles back past it and leaves it behind, wandering away down the pitch with the carefree manner of a chap off to the shops for the paper, a pint of milk and 20 Bensons. Denis Law sashays over to take up possession and is soon clipping a blind backheel into space before sauntering off himself, projecting an airy insouciance specifically tailored to agitate and annoy. Then enter Jim Baxter, who delicately dinks the ball into the air before ensuring it stays hovering up there, a playground game of keepie uppie in front of 99,000 spectators: one, two, three, four. The newly crowned world champions, England, are being comprehensively humiliated in their own back yard by the auld enemy.
Apologies to Archie Gemmill, but this passage of play, Slim Jim's four carefree flicks the cherries on the cake, stands as the greatest act in the entire history of the Scottish national football team, a perfect mix of brilliance and belligerence to live forever in the memory. And here, not part of the legend, is what happens next. Baxter scoops a pass down the inside-left channel for Law, who loses control. Gordon Banks gathers. One throw and six passes later, England have scored through Jack Charlton, who has one functioning leg. Stop the clock: 41 seconds after Baxter's signature cameo, the most iconic moment in 140 years of effort, Scotland were to be found picking the ball out of their own net. Quintessential, as Opta's Twitter feed might say.
It's never been easy supporting Scotland, who have found myriad ways to test the patience of their fans pretty much from the get-go. During the 1870s and 1880s, the Scots were the best team in the world but despite giving the English some hefty smacks in the mouth (5-1, 6-1, 7-2) during a period of domination between 1874 and 1887, the only game they lost during that era was of course the most memorable one. In 1879, an experienced and much-fancied Scottish side went 4-1 up before half-time, only to somehow lose 5-4 to an England side containing eight debutants, one of whom was a mere whelp of 17 (James Prinsep, a one-cap wonder whose record as youngest player would stand until Wayne Rooney's arrival). It was the first time an international side had lost a match having led by three goals. Well done, Scotland!
What would become a familiar pattern was starting to take shape, then, though the players have not always been the ones at fault. Younger fans may be interested to note that the Scottish FA has not always been a wee bit hapless and inept. Back in the day, they used to be extremely hapless and inept. Take the 1950 World Cup, which Scotland qualified for as runners-up in that year's Home Championship. The SFA refused the invitation, having earlier announced that it would send a team to Brazil only if they came top of the Home Championship table. Plans were scuppered, needless to say, when England travelled to Hampden and won. The SFA executive committee refused to budge, despite the pleas of a special delegation consisting of Scotland's captain George Young and his English counterpart Billy Wright. Preposterously pompous behaviour, though in keeping with an organisation which had snubbed the World Cup in its infancy during the 1930s, declaring Scotland too good to bother with the likes of Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil (despite having had their arses handed to them in friendlies by that decade's other powerhouses, Italy and Austria).
Whether that bleakly comic episode represented Scotland's biggest self-inflicted World Cup wound of the 1950s is a moot point. Qualification was achieved again in 1954, and this time according to SFA specifications too, but the governing body refused to allow the manager Andy Beattie to select any players from Rangers, who were off to the USA in the summer to make themselves a few quid. They also permitted him to take only 13 players to the finals in Switzerland, leaving the other nine men at home, spuriously on standby, as part of a cost-cutting measure (which incidentally didn't extend to stopping the SFA hierarchy taking themselves and their wives along for the ride). Sure enough, the Scots lost both matches they played, hindered not only by a signal lack of world-class talent but also by a voluminous kit made of thick, heavy material, wholly unsuited to gallivanting in the summer sun. Beattie resigned in exasperation after the first match, a 1-0 defeat by Austria, leaving a rudderless side to suffer a 7-0 skelping by the world champions Uruguay.
And then there was 1958, when Scotland didn't bother with a manager at all, Matt Busby having been incapacitated by the Munich disaster. The Clyde trainer Dawson Walker, whose expertise with chalkboards extended only to wiping them clean with his bucket and magic sponge, was put in nominal charge. Predictably enough, two defeats and a draw saw the shapeless Scots back home again quicksmart in despair, although at least their fans were spared most of the gory details, the SFA pulling the plug on televised coverage so attendances at junior level did not suffer. Well done, SFA!
Scotland's relationship with the World Cup – not so much love-hate as self-hate – was thus established early doors. After the 1950s, the SFA ditched the practice of tying together its own players' bootlaces, but there was little to show for its new more thoughtful (ie thoughtful) approach. The 1960s represented Scottish football's golden age, both in terms of playing talent and achievement at club level, but the international team failed to make it to a World Cup until 1974, when Scotland again broke new ground by becoming the first country to get knocked out without losing a match, a particularly Caledonian brand of achievement.
There's no need to be raking over the ashes of the 1978 campaign again, other than to recall one of the great press conferences, poor Ally MacLeod bending down to stroke a stray dog in attempt to dodge the brickbats aimed at his noggin in the wake of Scotland's miserable draw with Iran. "At least this wee fella loves me," he simpered, nanoseconds before the cur sank its gnashers into the hand of the Souness-shunning sadsack.
As Cris Freddi says in his indispensable Complete Book of the World Cup, "it was the last time anything was expected of Scotland". Since then, it's been diminishing returns, although in retrospect the Andy Roxburgh era, much derided at the time, arguably represents the national team's true golden age, with a decent if unspectacular showing at the 1990 World Cup (just don't mention Costa Rica or Cláudio Taffarel to Mo Johnston) and Scotland's best performance at a major tournament, two wholly undeserved defeats – unfortunate losses which so easily could have been famous victories – against the reigning European champions Holland and reigning world champions Germany at Euro 92.
Even Scotland's signature achievements carry asterisks and footnotes. As we've seen, Baxter's taunting of Sir Alf Ramsey's world champions led to them shipping a goal within a minute. Gemmill's famous slalom in Mendoza against Holland in 1978 might have been, as the Trainspotters will tell you, one of the great orgasmic experiences by any team in any World Cup, but its currency was almost instantly devalued; three minutes after the ball was dinked over Jan Jongbloed, Johnny Rep had extinguished all hope with a long-range belter, and MacLeod's men were heading home with their tails between their legs. And while Scotland are commonly regarded to have reached their pinnacle as a team in 1928, when the Wembley Wizards of Alex Jackson, Alex James, Hughie Gallacher and Alan Morton ran rings around England, thrashing them 5-1, it's often forgotten that the match was between the two worst teams in that year's Home Championship, a contest to decide the wooden spoon.
It doesn't amount to much when you boil the bones down. If you were being unkind, you'd say it was a dark litany of misery and failure, and it's hard to argue with bald facts. Then again, at least Scotland were giving it a whirl. Look at it from another angle and, while it's failure, it's glorious failure in the grand tradition, both team and fans pasting on their waxy wings and setting the controls for the heart of the sun. Inflated expectation, unrealistic ambition, preposterous idealism, thwarted ambition; this is the stuff of high glamour, nothing to be sniffed at. The joys might not always have been apparent at the time - Alan Hansen and Willie Miller colliding in Malaga, Jim Leighton teeing up Müller in Turin, Patrick Kluivert nutmegging David Seaman at Wembley - but these are bittersweet stories for the ages, essential parts of a rich folk history many other countries would die for.
If Scotland hadn't gone for it, they'd be left with bugger all to speak of now. So Scotland were never going to win the World Cup? Well, so what? Scottish fans can say what they like about England – and for the record, we hear there have been murmurings – but the auld enemy have never been short of self-belief. Apart from a golden age between 1965 and 1970 when they had genuine claims to be the best team in the world, England have for the most part been – admittedly it's not 100% certain that their fans will self-define like this – like Scotland, second-rate chancers. That hasn't, however, stopped them going into each and every tournament with a genuine belief that they could win it. And it's a mindset that's served them well, their chutzpah and sheer arrogance (the healthy sort) propelling a series of very average sides to the latter stages of many a competition.
It's a mindset Scotland used to have, too, albeit one that achieved results on a more modest scale. They could do with getting it back, and the sacking of Craig Levein gives the country the perfect opportunity to start. Levein appears to be a nice man, and an honourable one to boot, and many supporters will miss using his beard – which varied wildly in length from the tidiness of a Noel Edmonds to the bravehearted wildness of the alfresco Buckfast consumer – as a cheap and cheerful metaphor for the state of the team.
But it's Levein, and his middle management ilk, who have been responsible for finally extinguishing the last embers of the Scottish swagger. The most recent stab at glory, the staunch Euro 2008 qualifying campaign under Walter Smith and Alex McLeish, may have been founded on a bedrock of defensive solidity – nobody's arguing that tactics have to be totally dispatched out of the window – but there was still room for outrageous hope. It was hard to imagine anyone under Levein's yoke ever looking for the top corner from 40 yards like James McFadden did on that famous Thierry Henry-baiting night in Paris.
Unless you've got midfielders like Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, you can't be fielding teams without strikers; it's just not on. One of the most disgraceful results in recent Scottish history came against the Faroe Islands. Not the infamous game in Toftir in 2002, when Scotland fell 2-0 behind in 13 minutes and should have gone three down before scraping a draw, but the 3-0 win at Pittodrie in 2010. Scotland had scored all three of their goals in the first half but instead of pushing his team on for a few more confidence-boosting goals, a rare opportunity, Levein opted to give a few squad members a stretch of the legs in the second period, and momentum was lost.
The modern obsession of treating football as chess, and a wholly professional and athletic pursuit, is slowly suffocating the sport at many levels, and in most countries. But it's really buggering Scotland, who with meagre resources have historically had to rely on moments of outrageous improvisation to entertain their punters. Scotland may not have a Baxter, a Law, a Gemmill, a Kenny Dalglish, a Davie Cooper or Jimmy Johnstone any more, but that shouldn't stop the likes of Charlie Adam and Barry Bannan turning a few tricks for the cameras, football being a branch of entertainment and all that.
Scotland's failure to make a major finals since 1998 is a shame, but it's the recent chronic lack of ambition, coupled with the desire to grind out a result at the cost of aesthetic pleasure, that is the greater disgrace. Reaching a tournament isn't a panacea in any case; just look at the Republic of Ireland, who aren't feeling too good about themselves right now despite, or perhaps even because of, their Euro 2012 campaign. By comparison, one suspects Scottish fans will cherish their Homeric but ill-fated efforts to get to Euro 2008 far longer.
Will the good times – hey, it's all relative – ever come back? Possibly not, though the SFA is 139 years old now, and statistically due to make a correct decision. A proper framework for bringing up the kids is the ideal, but in the short term, appointing someone like the erstwhile Southampton and Celtic overachiever Gordon Strachan may give the side a boost, if only because he'll bring a sense of theatre to proceedings – surely it's better to see a manager hopping along the touchline in red-faced impotent rage, as opposed to scribbling furtively in a notebook – and kick off entertainingly in press conferences. If nothing else, it would be nice for each Scotland match to feel like an event again. And even if they do end up losing most of them, it matters little because the only way is up. Just look at the World Cup group.
The fans can do their bit, too. A generation of supporters have had their expectations managed to the point that everybody's forgotten how to dream. Well, bugger that. The minnows of Luxembourg are up next, and it's time to raise the bar of expectation. Realistically, Scotland will do well to score one while keeping a clean sheet, but football's meant to be exciting, and nobody should go through the turnstile with such limited hope in their hearts. So, then: a 10-goal thrashing; a 3-3 draw salvaged in humiliatingly jammy circumstances; or Charlie Adam juggling the ball for two minutes before accidentally shinning it into his own net. Any of it will do. Winning being lovely, of course, but a story to tell the grandkids will suffice.