The former Hibs and Celtic forward went without a senior cap until the age of 28. But from being Euro ’96’s odd man out to starting against Brazil in Paris, he savoured every single moment.  

Scotland at Euro ‘96 conjures up a host of images, if not for the average Tartan Army foot-soldier, then certainly for this writer, who can just about remember flashes of the 1994 World Cup as his first major tournament. 

Tartan kits. Denying Bogarde, Bergkamp et al. Seaman’s elbow, which would sound like a medical condition even if it hadn’t resulted in thousands of Scots feeling sick. Gascoigne’s goal. McCoist’s swerving first-time shot against the Swiss. Kluivert’s goal. McAllister. Hendry. McCall. Collins. 

There were a few players who didn’t get any game time at the tournament; virtually expected for back-up goalkeepers Jim Leighton and Nicky Walker and possibly Derek Whyte, a late replacement for the injured Alan McLaren. 

But with Scotland’s shyness in front of goal well documented as they drew blanks against the Netherlands and England, it was perhaps surprising that Craig Brown didn’t ever call upon Darren Jackson.  

The Scotland manager handed opportunities to five forwards across the three games – Scott Booth, Gordon Durie, Ally McCoist, John Spencer, and Kevin Gallacher, but not the Hibs talisman. While the Easter Road club had not enjoyed a vintage campaign, finishing fifth and exiting both cups at the third-round stage, Jackson had top-scored with 11 goals in all competitions. 

A latecomer to the international scene, he was 28 when he received his first senior cap, but can trace his Scotland journey back to a sparsely-attended ‘B’ international at Easter Road on a February night in early 1995, against Northern Ireland. While there were plenty of recognisable names in Scottish football turning out for the home side, only a handful would go on to impact the senior squad – including Jackson. 

“I’m not just saying this, and I’m not the arrogant type, but I scored probably one of the best goals that’s ever been scored in football that night,” he tells me, over tea in a Stockbridge cafe. 

“I was about 15 yards from the penalty box, right in the corner. We were shooting into the Dunbar End. Colin Cameron made a run, I chipped it towards him, and the centre-half got there first and headed it out to me. I chested it down and as the midfielder came to shut me down, I flicked it over his head and volleyed it, first time, right into the top corner from about 35, 40 yards away.  

“Tommy Burns [then Celtic manager] was there watching me that night. My family were there too and they said he left before I scored – and the game wasn’t even filmed!” 

It was the first time Jackson had pulled on the dark blue jersey at any level, having been picked for a Euro ’96 qualifier away to Greece but not made the matchday squad. Wonder-goal aside, the presence of a certain figure in the dugout probably did his senior chances no harm. 

“I can over-exaggerate the goal, but it was my first international cap – I’d never represented my country at any level. We won 3-0, and luckily I had a good game, especially with Craig Brown taking the team that night. I was 28 and yeah, I thought my time had probably gone but you play well in a few games, and you do start thinking you might get that chance.” 

Moscow; March 1995. A little over three years since the fall of the USSR, and Scotland are in town to take on Russia in a top-of-the-table clash in UEFA European Championship qualifying Group 8. 

"I was fortunate that there were a few call-offs; Coisty wasn’t there, so it was me and John McGinlay up front. But there was Duncan Ferguson, Gordon Durie, Kevin Gallacher, and Coisty who could all play up top. When I look at that level of competition, it maybe explains how Keith [Wright; Hibs strike-partner] was just very unlucky not to get more caps, and I was the lucky one,” Jackson says. 

“For my first game, it was just, ‘Wow’. Because Russia was not like it is now. The army was everywhere, and the ‘petrol station’ was a big 50-year-old tanker at the side of the road. That was where you filled up. 

“We went to the game [at the Luzhniki Stadium] and there were soldiers everywhere. I was shitting myself. But we put in a good performance – Tom Boyd should have got a hat-trick from left-back that night, by the way. But I did well, and it just went from there.” 

And it did; Jackson retained his place in the squad and featured in the remaining qualifiers and the Kirin Cup tournament in Japan in May 1995. Scotland played a clutch of friendlies in the lead-up to the tournament, starting with McCoist ensuring a 1-0 victory over Australia at Hampden, followed by a 2-0 defeat by Denmark in Copenhagen, with brothers Brian and Michael Laudrup on target for the hosts. 

“We got absolutely battered by Denmark,” he says, with a wince. “There were only two of them, but it felt like there were six Laudrup brothers on the pitch. They were sensational that night.” 

Brown then took his squad to the United States for a pre-tournament training camp ahead of Euro ’96, where Scotland were defeated in friendlies against the USA in Connecticut and Colombia in Miami. 

Brown confirmed his squad with UEFA before Scotland returned to Europe, with no surprises – the 22-man selection was the same as the travelling party, with Whyte coming in for McLaren. 

“Craig didn’t say anything before Euro ’96. It was all about how you played on a Saturday. He was excellent, him and Alex Miller. He leaned on Alex’s opinion and they obviously talked through everything. They were a good team, but Craig was his own man.  

“A lot of people might have thought I got into the squad because Alex, my manager at Hibs, was the assistant, but I don’t think Craig was like that. Still, I felt fortunate to be in the squad. It wasn’t daunting because the players alongside me weren’t big-headed. They were normal boys, playing for their country. They were as excited as me.  

“There wasn’t one ego on that team. Plus, Colin Calderwood was in the squad. He made his debut that night in Moscow as well, and he was an older player like me. And I’m still good pals with him.” 

Scotland won plaudits for their gritty performance against the Netherlands at Villa Park in their opening game of Euro ’96, but it was only ever a prelude to the main event: Scotland v England at Wembley; the first time the teams had met since 1989. Club colleagues were going up against each other, and the fact the tournament was held in England meant the media coverage was already at fever pitch, never mind chucking a grudge match into the middle of it all. 

But Jackson was a spectator throughout the tournament; an unused substitute at Villa Park, Wembley, and Villa Park again. 

“I never played at Euro ’96. And I would have loved to have played, especially at Wembley. But I actually came away without a single shred of anger that I didn’t get one minute. It was just an amazing tournament. And I know that sounds strange, but it’s the truth,” Jackson says, somewhat surprisingly. 

“Craig never promised anyone anything in the way of minutes or games. There were times when I was sitting on the bench thinking, ‘He could put me on,’ but I also knew that he would put players on who he felt were better suited for a position, or better suited for that game. I never had one regret. I loved it. I absolutely loved it.” 

How hard was it to stay focused, I ask, particularly for the crunch game against Switzerland, knowing there was a chance you might get called upon, even although you hadn’t been picked in the previous two matches? 

"It wasn’t easy to stay switched on all the time but I was representing my country at a big tournament, so I couldn’t not be. I was huffy, yes; if you’re not playing it’s not nice. You want to play every game – every player does. I don’t know if it was the players I was with, and it certainly wasn’t a case of just being happy to be there, but I knew the players picked were better than me. So I didn’t have an argument,” Jackson admits. 

“If Craig had picked me, I would have been ready, and I could have done a job, but his thoughts, and Alex’s thoughts, were that that was the right team.” 

Scotland kept England at bay for the first 45 minutes at Wembley. We all know what happened next, but how did things look from the subs’ bench? 

“I know it will haunt him for the rest of his life but I believe if Gary McAllister had scored that penalty, we would have gone on to win,” Jackson states. “The England fans had turned. It was also the best half-time I’ve ever experienced. They put ‘Rockin’ All Over The World’ by Status Quo on the PA, and all the Scotland fans sang along. We just stood and watched, and so did the England fans, as all the Scotland supporters sang. It was out of this world. Just mind-blowing. 

“We were coming onto a game as well and the England fans seemed a bit nervy. I think we could have caused a wee upset against a top England side with Gascoigne and the rest. We were very unlucky. Against the Netherlands in the first game, we were very unlucky as well and against Switzerland, we were very, very unlucky not to beat them by more goals. 

“But it was always the hard-luck story, wasn't it?” 

Despite his lack of games at Euro ’96, Jackson continued to be selected for, and played in, most of Scotland’s games following the tournament. The bid for World Cup qualification began with a 2-0 victory over Latvia in Riga, with him scoring the second goal. He was named in the starting XI for the infamous ‘One Team in Tallinn’ game against Estonia (or not, as it ended up), but didn’t make the squad for the rearranged match in Monaco. 

The following summer Jackson received the bombshell news that he might never play football again – just weeks after leaving Hibs to sign for Celtic in a £1.25 million deal. A tumultuous 24 hours culminated in a second medical opinion being sought, and the diagnosis of hydrocephalus, or fluid in the brain, brought with it some hope. 

“I was told my career was over on my first visit to the hospital, when I had a headache before a UEFA Cup game against Tirol Innsbruck. Celtic sent me for an MRI scan. They didn’t know it was hydrocephalus at that point, they thought it was something else that meant I couldn’t play again. And that broke my heart,” Jackson recalls. 

"I was devastated; devastated for my life, and for my football too. But I went back the next day, they did another scan, and they realised what it was. The surgeon, Dr Philip Barlow, said that I would play again if I had an operation. Jock Brown, the Celtic chief executive at the time, said the club would look after me if I didn’t want the surgery but of course I wanted to play again. I was out nine weeks. I could have been out for longer with a hamstring.” 

Unsurprisingly, playing again for Scotland was an afterthought at this point. Jackson had had injuries before but nothing on this scale, and Celtic’s determination to stop Rangers from winning 10 in a row helped him focus on getting back fit. 

“I didn’t really think about the wider picture. When you start playing, you forget about that. When I broke my ankle at Dundee United it was just about getting back fit as soon as I could. You can’t afford to think about the tiny details. My mind was on every game with Celtic, stopping the 10, and trying to get back into the Celtic team, which unfortunately I didn’t because Harald [Brattbakk] and Henrik [Larsson] were the two strikers that Wim Jansen picked, nine times out of 10. I still played – I was nearly always a sub, but I got on a lot and played my part, so that was the priority.” 

Jackson returned to the Scotland fold ahead of the World Cup, his last games having come in a friendly against Malta – in which he scored a double – and a qualifier against Belarus. He made his playing return in a friendly defeat by Denmark at Ibrox before netting in a 1-1 draw with Finland at Easter Road. After earning what was termed a ‘surprise’ inclusion in Brown’s squad for France, he featured in friendly draws against Colombia and the USA and was handed a start against Brazil at the Stade de France on June 10, 1998. 

“Scotland took care of itself. I was very lucky that Craig was loyal to players who did it for him, and I’d done well for him. So even though I wasn’t playing regularly for Celtic, he stuck by me, and I’ll forever be grateful. I told him many, many times how grateful I was, and he’s away with that. But he told me I didn’t have to be grateful because what I was doing was enough for him to pick me. 

“I started one of the biggest games in Scotland’s history as a footballing nation when they played Brazil at France ‘98. I played the following game as well. Now, many people might not have picked me; they might have had someone else in there. But Craig thought I was right for that game, so I can’t turn around and say he was wrong not to pick me at Euro ’96, and right to pick me for Brazil at France ’98. 

“I enjoyed Euro ’96 because it was in England – the press, the television; we were immersed in the build-up. In France, we were staying in a beautiful hotel but, not speaking French, we didn’t get the same sort of buzz. I’m not saying that I enjoyed the Euros more than the World Cup when I didn’t play at it; it was different, but France still had an unbelievable buzz. It wasn’t in England, and there wasn’t that England-Scotland focus, like Celtic-Rangers, or Hibs-Hearts. But if you ask any player in the world what they want to do in their career, playing at a World Cup is the pinnacle. 

“I know people say the Champions League these days. But you’ll never beat a World Cup. And if you were asked who you wanted to play in the opening game of a World Cup, it would be Brazil, wouldn’t it?” 

Even now, Jackson looks back at the Brazil line-up that afternoon in Paris – “I don’t think Ronaldo gets the credit he deserves because of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and how people view players now” – and reels off the players. 

“Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Dunga, Roberto Carlos, Bebeto,” he lists. “Y’know, people ask me how I think I'd get on playing today, and I just say that when I played against Rangers, at one point I was up against Richard Gough and Terry Butcher: the Scotland captain, and the England captain. I came up against a lot of centre-halves, but I played against them regularly. So Gough and Butcher were a tough double act, but then Aldair and Júnior Baiano for Brazil… unbelievable. At club level though, I don’t think it gets better than Gough and Butcher.” 

One tale from which Jackson has had plenty of mileage is nabbing Júnior’s jersey in the French capital – even if everyone in dark blue had designs on swapping shirts with O Fenômeno. 

“I’d actually agreed to swap shirts with Ronaldo; he said, ‘tunnel,’ so at the end of the game the boys were away clapping the fans and I went straight to the tunnel to wait for him. Then Júnior walked off the pitch and saw me, and said, ‘change?’ pointing at the jerseys, and I didn’t feel I could say, ’No, sorry; I’m waiting on Ronaldo!’ 

“The boys came off the pitch and were told to go to the Brazil changing room. John Collins was straight over to Ronaldo to change strips with him. But I’ve got Júnior Baiano’s – and I’ve heard that he’s actually got mine framed above his mantelpiece in his house…” 

There’s a flash of that devilish grin that opposing fans were only too used to seeing during his playing career. But the smile fades to be replaced by a thoughtful look when I ask if it felt like the last dance for him at the time. 

“Deep down I knew I wasn’t ever going to play at another World Cup, so it did feel a bit, ‘This is as good as it’s going to get’. I was 31; I was very unlikely to get called up at 35 for the next one. But once France ’98 was over, I never thought that that was it; you just want to get as many caps as you can. But I only played another few games because of my back. I retired because of that. I was struggling a bit. 

“But you never think, ‘Right, that’s it’. You always want more. I played against Lithuania away and Barry Ferguson came on for me to make his debut, and then Estonia at Tynecastle when Billy Dodds scored two late goals and we won 3-2. And that’s when it felt like things were coming to an end, with other boys coming through. I could still do it at club level, but internationals were a step up, and a step too far at that point. 

“I’d have loved 50, 60, 70 caps but because I got in late, that was never going to happen. I was just happy that I got my 28, and I’m so grateful to Craig and Alex. I played at the World Cup, and I went to a Euros...” 

Another small smile, this time an appreciative one. Appreciation at how things turned around, from not seeing a single minute of action at Euro ’96, to joining Celtic and fearing his career was over, only to be told he could keep playing, and then line up for Scotland in one of the most important games in the country’s footballing history. 

I ask about the players who followed Jackson and his ilk – the ones who didn’t manage to qualify for a major tournament. 

“It’s gutting that Scott Brown, Barry Ferguson, and Darren Fletcher didn’t get the chance to play at a major tournament. They deserved that chance,” he says, after thinking about the question. “Jim Leighton and Andy Goram were two of the best but David Marshall, Craig Gordon, and Allan McGregor was some trio of goalkeepers as well.” 

And what about the current crop? There’s a feel-good factor surrounding Scotland that hasn’t been seen for some time, and it’s not just that doomed optimism with which most Scots over a certain age are all too familiar. 

“When I played for Scotland, we had an unbelievable team spirit. Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and others have said that their England generation should have achieved more. But they didn’t want to sit beside each other at dinner because they didn’t want Manchester United to know what Chelsea or Arsenal were doing. So they didn’t have that team spirit whereas when I played for Scotland the Celtic boys and the Rangers boys sat together and mixed. Craig was massive on team spirit and played a big part in it,” Jackson explains. 

“When we were away, we were allowed to have a drink and it wasn’t a huge issue. Nowadays it would be all over social media. But we were allowed to do that then, and we just had an unbreakable team spirit. And I think Scotland have that now, although it’s obviously different. 

“Steve Clarke has brought back the importance of playing for Scotland. Nobody misses out. No one is pulling out through injury unless they have to. They all turn up and they all want to be there, and when you’re qualifying for tournaments, that’s huge. I think that’s played a big part in them getting to where they are today. 

“Scotland always need a bit of luck. We are very good. At times, we can be sensational. But Stevie and his staff have brought that team spirit. And you can’t just have a team spirit with players, you need it with the staff as well – and we had that in fucking abundance. 

“They’ve got good players, and they’re at a major tournament again. Hopefully they’ll have a bit more good fortune than we did. Maybe it won’t be a hard-luck story this time.”