TONIGHT, Scotland face Slovakia in a must-win match to keep alive their playoff ambitions for a second bite at World Cup Qualification – and bring to an end a twenty year wait to play in a major international tournament.
In a campaign that began disastrously, with just four points from the first four matches, Gordon Strachan’s men have revived their bid to get to Russia with ten points out of the last twelve available. The upturn in fortunes is enough to send the Tartan Army to Hampden this evening with renewed hope that they can see their side secure the three points needed to put second place firmly in their own hands ahead of Sunday’s final match in Slovenia.
Two decades ago this month, the Scots went into the final match of their France ’98 campaign against Latvia knowing that victory would secure their sixth World Cup Finals appearance out of seven.
Although sitting second in the table, Scotland boasted the best record of the second placed sides where only one automatically qualified, with the other eight going into the nail-biting playoff scenario. In the nine previous matches, Scotland had won five (including all four previous home matches), drawn three and lost just once whilst conceding just three goals all campaign. There was great belief that Scotland would complete the job against the Latvians, then very much still an unknown quantity in International football.
Originally, the match was scheduled for Easter Road, with Hampden’s South Stand being rebuilt and the SFA taking matches around the country, giving Ibrox, Rugby Park, Celtic Park and Pittodrie the previous four matches. However, with demand too big for an 18,000 seated stadium, the game was, correctly, switched to Celtic Park, with Easter Road given the guarantee of hosting a friendly match before the World Cup as compensation.
Then there was the TV debate. Under the existing contract, the SFA gave the BBC rights to broadcast all away matches live and highlights of all the home matches, whilst only allowing one home match to be screened live, that option already exercised when they played Sweden at Ibrox. Again the SFA made an exception given the demand and sold live rights for Channel Five, launched seven months previously, to broadcast the match live for the country to see if the Scots could make it to France, whilst the BBC showed the highlights.
So the scene was set on a sunny afternoon in October as Scotland set about getting the three points they required to book their flights to France.
They almost got the perfect start when Gary McAllister crossed for Gordon Durie, but his diving header went wide. However, the rest of the half was nervy as Scotland struggled to gain any momentum in the game as the visitors kept them at arms length.
Just two minutes from half time and the breakthrough came. John Collins shot was fumbled by the Latvian goalkeeper and Kevin Gallacher, who’d netted five times in his previous four Scotland matches, reacted quickest to head the ball home to the relief of almost everyone inside the near 50,000 capacity crowd.
The second half went pretty much like the first, with Scotland struggling to gain any momentum in the game but being largely untroubled by a Latvian team devoid of any ideas going forward. That said, the one goal lead looked fragile and a second goal was needed to settle everyone down.
Ten minutes from time, it arrived! Gallacher’s clever chip hit the crossbar but landed on the head of Durie, who had the simplest task of heading into an unguarded net to seal victory and begin the celebrations in earnest.
Scotland went onto kick off the finals in the opening match against Brazil in the new French National Stadium – the Stade de France.
It’s incredible to think that was the last time Scotland sealed qualification for a major finals. Looking back, it was taken for granted that we’d be at a major finals given the calibre of player we had at the time. In particular, the midfield trio of Gary McAllister, John Collins then at Monaco and Paul Lambert, who helped Borussia Dortmund win the Champions League that year.
Back then, it was seen as failure that we kept getting eliminated at the first hurdle in the finals, like we did in 1998 following a timid display against Morocco. Nowadays, just getting to a tournament would be viewed as a major achievement after two decades of hurt.
Tonight, Scotland have a tough ask just to get that chance of a playoff position and are up against a decent outfit in Slovakia, who wiped the floor with us a year ago in Bratislava and have been at a finals more recently than us having reached the last 16 of Euro 2016 last year.
What is in Scotland’s favour is the upturn in performances and results this calendar year, therefore go into the game confident we can get the win tonight that would mean another three points on Sunday would secure that second bite at the qualification cherry.
A performance, and result, reminiscent of the class of ’97 would go down very well with the Tartan Army this evening.
Scotland team: Leighton, Burley, Boyd, Calderwood, Hendry, Dailly, Gallacher, Lambert, Durie, McAllister, Collins.
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