Scotland’s back in the big time

It’s happened.  It’s actually happened.  Scotland have qualified for a major tournament, the Euros, and ended 22 years of footballing exile.

It feels surreal that after years, decades really, of enduring glorious failure that what must have been a curse has lifted from our national game and we’re back to where we should be.

What made the difference this time? It would be easy to be cynical, as we have been in our defeats.  We won a third-rate Nations League group then stumbled to victory on penalties over two sides that were likely unfit to qualify as well.  It may be true, but it belies the key factors that have led us also to our best unbeaten run in 44 years.

Back when we had our near-miss in Euro 2008 qualifying we had the passion, but not quite the ability.  What the last 18 months or so has shown is that we now have both in the key areas of the team.

Steve Clarke inherited a squad that was fresh off a hounding against the no-hopers of Kazakhstan, and then he had to take us on against the world’s number 1 ranked team in Belgium and World Cup quarter-finalists Russia.  We took our losses against those opponents as expected, but what Clarke has managed to muster in other games has been spectacular.

The squad is largely the same, but Clarke has managed to get them to stick to a system which keeps us very steady at the back and lets us break more assuredly.  We don’t tend to win games by a lot of goals, but we do tend to score and are very hard to score against, which makes us tough to play against, and why we have gone 9 unbeaten against teams of a similar calibre to us.

Clarke has brought a level-headedness and a tactical discipline that Scotland have lacked for a long time.  This was never more evident than last night in Belgrade, as we held firm in 30 torturous minutes of extra time despite having been sucker-punched so late on in the first 90.  Lesser Scotland teams would have felt the writing was on the wall after that header had scuppered our chances, but the players last night dug in, saw it out and took their chances in the penalty shoot-out with aplomb.

That brings us on to the other key difference – the players.  Scotland have finally become a team that is equal to or greater than the sum of their parts.  There are world-class players in the side now, in the likes of Andy Robertson, and no real areas where we look weak.  But beyond that, because we have had good players before, it’s clear the current squad want to play for Scotland – which hasn’t been evident for a long time.  That extra bit of effort means that the team are turning out performances beyond what you would expect.  You can see from the celebrations last night and the videos on social media that the team are Scotland fans just as much as the rest of us, and that desire and understanding of what it means to everyone back home could well have proved the difference in the games we’ve won by fine margins on the way to next summer’s showpiece event.

In some ways the work is done for Scotland at this stage.  Getting to a major tournament has been the goal for so many years, and now that has been achieved there’s a good question to ask: “What’s next?”.

Our Euros group features the Czech Republic, Croatia and the Auld Enemy of England.  The latter two are solid opponents that Scotland wouldn’t be fancied against – but my feeling is that we can beat the Czech Republic and maybe nick a point against Croatia (with both games seeing us have some home advantage), and that would more than likely be enough to get us out of the group for the first time ever at a major tournament.  Is it running before we can properly walk again? Perhaps – but I think now it’s okay for Scotland fans to dream a bit, and believe that those dreams just might come true.

Even more immediate, however, is two Nations League games against Slovakia and Israel.  Winning the group gives us a chance of reaching the next World Cup playoffs, and gives us promotion in the Nations League which could lead to another Euro playoff run in 4 years’ time as well.  Winning these would give us the sort of insurance policy that we cashed in on so spectacularly last night and potentially set us up for a new golden era.

As is clear from my wildly optimistic predictions, Scotland fans are riding the crest of a wave at the moment, and the hope is that it doesn’t crash to shore just yet.  The last day or so has been a rare moment of joy in a dark year, on every level. My hope is that this joy is not fleeting but a first taste of the happiess that could be had next summer if life becomes more normal and we can celebrate Scotland’s successes together.  Hopefully we’ll never have to endure a year like this again, or another agonising wait for Scotland to make us proud and be the footballing nation we want to be, and this can mark the turning point.

But no matter what lies ahead, the 12th of November 2020 will be a date remembered in Scottish football history forever, and the names of Christie, Marshall, Griffiths, McGregor, McTominay, McBurnie, Dykes, Tierney, Robertson, McLean and the rest will go down with it.  We made it, we did it, Scotland’s back in the big time.

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