The wet and wonderful Wembley Wizards
© Getty Images

“Pray for rain.”

As stirring motivational speeches go, it was hardly Braveheart-esque. Yet these three words, uttered by Scotland captain Jimmy McMullan in London’s Regent Palace Hotel late on 30 March 1928, summed up the scale of his team’s challenge. The following day, they would go into the lion’s den at Wembley to face England, the auld enemy, with defeat seen as near-inevitable.

It was no wonder the English began as heavy favourites. In Dixie Dean, they boasted an extraordinary striker at the very peak of his powers. This was the season in which the Everton icon would accumulate his record haul of 60 goals, and facing him would be an international debutant. Dean must have been rubbing his hands in anticipation. And the centre-half in question, Tom Bradshaw, was just one of many causes for concern in a controversial Scottish line-up.

The visitors did, after all, possess their own scoring sensation, who - like his English contemporary - was enjoying the season of his life. Celtic’s Jimmy McGrory would find the net 62 times across all competitions before the campaign was out, having been Europe’s top league marksman the season before. But when the team was announced, McGrory was out. Selected in his place was Newcastle United’s Hughie Gallacher, a fine player, but one who had spent the previous two months sidelined by injury.

It seemed an inexplicable decision, and neither the public nor the press were reticent about criticising the chosen XI. The Daily Record concluded simply: “It’s not a great side”. This was the backdrop of negativity and pessimism against which McMullan made his pre-match speech.

But why ask for rain? Surely Scotland’s skipper wasn’t so downbeat as to think a postponement was his team’s only hope? Not quite. The reason lay in the team’s diminutive five-man forward line, the tallest of whom stood at an unimposing 5ft 7ins. McMullan recognised that, without McGrory’s renowned aerial ability, Scotland’s best chance of success rested on a slippy, muddy Wembley surface. His prayers were answered.

London awoke to a downpour and, just as their captain had hoped, the Scottish forwards’ quick turns and agile changes of direction went unmatched by England’s hulking defenders. Alex Jackson of Huddersfield Town, the 5ft 7ins ‘giant’ of the quintet, plundered a hat-trick as the hosts crumbled in a hopelessly one-sided second half. Scotland’s other goals in a 5-1 win were claimed by Alex James, who remarked afterwards: “We could have had ten!”

Inevitably, the Scottish media performed a swift 180-degree turn of their own. A team that had been dismissed and decried were now christened ‘The Wembley Wizards’. The Glasgow Herald even took the chance to unashamedly gloat. “The success of the Scots,” wrote the broadsheet's correspondent, “was primarily another demonstration that Scottish skill, science and trickery will prevail against the less attractive and simpler methods of the English style.”

The English, meanwhile, were gracious in defeat, with Ivan Sharpe – a former Leeds United player – lauding his nation's conquerors in Athletic News. "England were not merely beaten,” he observed. “They were bewildered – run to a standstill, made to appear utterly inferior by a team whose play was as cultured and beautiful as I ever expect to see."

There had also been steel to match Scotland’s style. Even the seemingly unstoppable Dean met his match in Bradshaw, who performed a flawless man-marking job. The debate in the months that followed centred on whether the Wizards could repeat their remarkable feat. As it was, they were never given the chance. The 11 players who destroyed England were never picked together again, while Bradshaw’s first cap proved, astonishingly, to be his last.

Yet the team lives on in Scottish football folklore. Their success prompted a pilgrimage to Wembley whenever the fixture was repeated, with over 40,000 Scots travelling south for the sides’ next two meetings. Many still cite this 1928 triumph as the greatest ever recorded by their national team.

That its 85th anniversary is celebrated today, in the same week that Scotland became the first European nation to officially drop out of the FIFA World Cup™ running, lends the occasion added significance. A post-mortem is already well under way, and its diagnosis of the team’s problems and prospects is sure to be gloomy. If only the solution was as simple as praying for a little rain.