Back on the Big Stage

“If someone offered me another 0-0 and penalty shootout victory then I would grab it with both hands right now.”

Trust Scotland to make it even more dramatic than that.

Despite Serbia being favourites for this game, it was Scotland who looked the more likely to win in regular time. Ryan Christie’s goal looked to be taking us there, even though we probably should have scored more than once, but isn’t it just typical that we would then go and make it hard for ourselves by switching off right at the end and gifting Serbia a way back into a game they were barely in.

Were we about to “Scotland it” once more in yet another new and interesting way?

Extra time was the complete opposite of regular time. Having made the tactical changes to try and see out the ninety, we had to endure thirty additional minutes with our backs to the wall as Serbia got a lift from their unexpected lifeline.

But endure we did, and after that it was just a formality of penalties. Score all five and save one of theirs, just like against Israel. I said it last month and I’ll say it again, thirty years we’ve been hearing from down south about the heartbreak of penalty shootouts, I really don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Sadly, our pizza adverts will just have to remain cameo free.

All ten penalties in the shootout were good penalties. The Serbian keeper got a hand to the Griffiths penalty and David Marshall almost kept out another earlier in the shootout as well, but there was enough power and accuracy in them both to keep things going. The final penalty wasn’t a bad penalty either, Marshall just guessed the right way and got there early enough that he could get a strong hand to it.

Sadly VAR has somewhat ruined football. I remember watching last year as Lee Alexander terrifically saved that late Argentina penalty, only to be told she had come off her line – which I’m still not sure she did – and the penalty would be retaken. Argentina of course scored the retake and that was the end of Scotland’s women’s world cup hopes. I wonder if David Marshall remembered that too, because rather than celebrating as the rest of the Scotland team were rushing towards him in elation, he was checking with the referee that everything was good and that the penalty save would definitely stand.

I’ll be honest, I’m still a little worried it won’t and they’ll be dragged out of their hotel beds for a retake the morning after. That’s 22 years of disappointment for you.

David Marshall has been a hero to me for a long time now. I was there at Celtic Park the night he was unexpectedly called from the bench at half time against Barcelona after Rab Douglas was sent off. I was also there in Barcelona two weeks later in what will likely forever be the longest ninety minutes of my life. Marshall made save after save from some of the best players in Europe that night and Celtic knocked Barcelona out of the UEFA Cup in the process.

To be honest, against Serbia he had far less to do. Aside from the shootout save and the terrific finger tips effort in extra time, there wasn’t much else for him. He couldn’t do anything about their equaliser. But that doesn’t make him any less a hero to Scotland now.

The performances of Marshall for Celtic in 2004 were just the start for him, and it wasn’t long after that he got his very first international cap. It’s a good thing for all of us that he was young enough back then that he’s still in the team more than sixteen years later!

Now he, the rest of the Scotland squad, those players on the fringes who aspire to be in the squad, and every single one of us watching on can finally look forward to a major tournament in the summer knowing that we don’t have to find someone to support to make it more interesting.

For the first time since 1998 I don’t have to draw on my ancestral links to have some interest in the tournament, although don’t get wrong I’ll still be hoping the Poles can do well.

We also don’t even have to worry about being petty and supporting “anyone but England” because that anyone is us! They are our group rivals! We want them to lose simply because they can lose to us!

UEFA will be delighted too of course. With Euro 2020 set up across the continent, seven of the twelve hosts had already qualified, and only Azerbaijan weren’t at least in the playoffs. Romania and Ireland both dropped out last month, but both Hungary and of course Scotland managed to come through their playoff finals successfully so that’s nine host nations that have a real interest in the games taking place in their own countries.

I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves here, but now that we can legitimately look forward to the finals it’s hard not to look at what is to come. As well as a trip to Wembley on June 18th to take on the Auld Enemy, the other two group matches are actually home ties. Both the Czech Republic on June 14th and Croatia on June 22nd are at Hampden. Hopefully by the time these games come around we’ll actually have fans in stadiums once more, but its worth remembering that as recently as last month we beat the Czechs at home and two months ago we beat them away too. Indeed, the last time we faced Croatia was at the start of the Strachan era in 2013 and we beat them home and away as well.

That’s two very winnable games in our group. Suddenly, from not being able to even reach the finals for more than two decades, we’re in a position where it’s not unreasonable to consider doing what no Scotland team has ever done before and actually qualifying for the knockout stages of the finals. Win the two games at Hampden and it’s guaranteed we’ll do that, but even four points or maybe even three should be enough given that at least two and possibly three teams qualify from the group.

And of course once we’re in the knockout stages it’s just a simple matter of making sure we get to penalties in each round because then we’re invincible. May as well stick our name on the trophy now!

In the more immediate future, we still have two Nations League matches remaining. Even there, suddenly the future looks bright. We’re currently sitting four points clear at the top of our group. Win one of our two remaining games and we’re getting promoted to the top tier with all the big names in Europe. We might not even need to win depending on other results in the group – a draw between the Czechs and the Israelis this weekend would do.

Winning our group and being promoted to the top tier all but guarantees us a playoff spot for the next Euros because most of the teams there will likely qualify anyway, and it would be great for our seeding for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers too. Indeed, there’s a carrot of a playoff spot for World Cup qualification for two of the best Nations League group winners that don’t do so well in the actual qualifiers.

So its in our interests to do the best we can in these two remaining games this month, we’ve just benefited from the Nations League playoffs after all! Hopefully we’re not too hungover from the playoff celebrations, because all of a sudden the future for the men’s national team is the brightest I can remember in a long, long time.

We’ve been through so much these past years. The summer of 1998 saw not just Scotland at a major tournament but it also saw the end of a ten in a row dream and saw Hearts lift the Scottish Cup – no doubt there are some who are hoping that Scotland’s success is now a sign of things to come!

After France 98 with Craig Brown, now no longer the last man to take us to a major finals, it was glorious failure against the English in the Euro 2000 playoffs before he finally stepped down after missing out on World Cup 2002. Berti Vogts gave us another playoff against the Netherlands for Euro 2004 where we gave ourselves a chance before the wheels fell off spectacularly. Walter Smith couldn’t rescue the 2006 World Cup campaign after Vogts, and while he gave us a home win over France in Euro 2008 qualifying, he left for Rangers before the job was done. Alex McLeish came in and gave us an away win over France, but our hopes died in maroon in Georgia.

We suffered through George Burley’s boozegate for World Cup 2010 qualifying and Craig Levein’s 4-6-0 for Euro 2012 qualifying, before Gordon Strachan answered our SOS after World Cup 2014 had already slipped away from us. Twice he took us close to qualification for Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018, but another Georgia disappointment and late equalisers to teams like Poland and England snatched them both away from us.

McLeish returned and while it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was he who gave us the Nations League third tier group win that set up these playoffs in the first place, the Scotland that Steve Clarke took over was far from in a good place after the heavy defeat to Kazakhstan. Clarke had to endure the four games against Russia and Belgium in regular Euro 2020 qualifying before he could come out of the other side of that with a brand of football that has now seen Scotland go nine games undefeated.

A run that has taken us back to the big stage once more. Finally, at last, once more…

We’ll be coming, we’ll be coming, we’ll be coming down the road!