17 and counting

As much as you’d think we’d be getting used to it, last night Scotland once again experienced the pain of failure as our Euro 2016 dreams were shattered.  Despite hope and optimism that this could be our chance, once again we’ve come up short.  Scottish football is at its lowest ebb.

So what went wrong this time?  We had a tough group, and one in which we were 4th seeds, but under Gordon Strachan we went into the qualifying campaign with optimism and even though the odds might have been against us, we began to believe again that we could do it.  The new format of Euro qualifying, by virtue of the expanded tournament, meant that there was a better chance than ever to sneak in to the tournament – either behind expected runaway leader Germany in an automatic berth or the play-off spot.  All we needed to do was do better than either Poland or Ireland.  That wasn’t so simple.

Scotland’s downfall came in the bigger games, and while they used to be occasions we relished we came unstuck against the sides we needed to beat.  Our two games against Germany might have been written off as walkovers beforehand, but both times we put up a valiant effort before losing by a single goal.  The thing is though that they aren’t the all-conquering side they were at last year’s World Cup and our rivals took advantage of that, with Poland beating them at home and Ireland securing a draw away and a win at home against them.

And against Ireland and Poland we were no great shakes either.  Our win against Ireland in November was an electric occasion, but all the other vital matches ended in a draw.  Scotland have lacked a killer instinct in these games, one we thought we might just have, and our defensive mistakes have meant that we’ve been exploited at the back too.

The hammer-blow, of course, to the campaign was our disgraceful defeat away to Georgia – with our visit to Tbilisi being the second time the country has effectively ended our Euro qualifying chances, the last time being 2007.  That was a torrid display from Scotland that lacked heart and lacked quality, and try as we might to find a goal one never arrived.  That was the night it all came crashing down.

Last night wasn’t the real crescendo then, but the action on the pitch certainly epitomised it.  Scotland were shell-shocked after losing a goal in the second minute and took the best part of half an hour to recover.  Poland were passing fluidly up and down the park and our internationals were giving the ball away.  Strachan’s former style of great pass and move football and exciting attack gave away to meek ventures forward that rarely found a pass in the final third.  While the two goals we scored were spectacular, with Matt Ritchie and Steven Fletcher putting home goals that were far and above what they seemed capable of on the basis of their performance elsewhere in the game, there was little else of note for Scotland.  It was a heart-breaking final minute strike from Robert Lewandowski that left the hordes of Hampden leaving with a sour taste of defeat in their mouths, but one that was almost expected.  If our defeat in Georgia this time was reminiscent of 2007, our defeat last night was almost a carbon copy of our game against Italy that year too.  Just this time we weren’t as deserving at all.

Where now for Scotland is a question we are all too used to asking and at this point it’s hard to see if there’s any real answers we can give that will really be able to turn things around.  In Gordon Strachan we have a fantastic manager, although one whose team selection is extremely erratic.  Our players are a good group and have plenty of talent amongst them, although some of them are quite old.

Scotland needs a shake-up, a fundamental change in the way we look at football.  For our national team, it seems there is little else we can do.  Strachan should stay on for the World Cup campaign and see us through – with the prospect of Slovenia, Slovakia and, of course, England as our qualification rivals this time, it’s something that we should be relishing.  Whether he will want to though is another question.  Certainly we need to bring in a few new players; with Leigh Griffiths being the most prominent to mention but the likes of Graham Shinnie, Andy Robertson and Gary Mackay-Steven are all worth their turn in the dark blue too.  These little changes could mean a lot, and build a basis of a team that we’ve tried to rebuild again and again with little to show for it.

But the real change has to be at club and grassroots level.  Scotland simply isn’t producing quality footballers anymore – it’s as simple as that.  Other countries have eclipsed us for decades now in getting their young people playing football and in developing their skills and we have been complacent.  Scotland was forever punching above our weight in football terms when we were qualifying for major championships left, right and centre back in the day – but now we are sitting on the sidelines while countries like Northern Ireland, Wales and Iceland are all making it to football’s top tier.  As much as we’d like to look at success in international and European football, we need our authorities to look at bringing about success on a local level – bringing opportunities for kids to play football, to get training and to develop their football skills – so that we can get back to being a country that’s half-way decent at the game we helped invent.

These changes are long overdue and successive attempts at reforming our game have borne little fruit so far.  We can sit back and mourn another footballing failure or we can dig in and get to work on making a culture and infrastructure that puts football development at its heart.  Tom English put it brilliantly on Twitter last night when he said “the country’s sporting tragedy is its total love of football” – but we can stop this decline by taking real action and making our game better at a fundamental level.  It’s only then that success will rise up to our national team and make us a nation of football ability again.

World Cup 2018 might be a pipe dream, but our real goal should be Euro 2020.  24 teams will qualify for that tournament, and the jewel in the crown for us is that one of the tournament’s venues is Hampden Park itself.  Surely the chance of playing at a major tournament in front of thousands and thousands of your own fans will give our national team the heart to start playing attacking and successful football again.

But for now, it’s 17 years and counting since we’ve played at a major championships.  When the wait will stop is anyone’s guess.

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