This Is The Day

Posted on by K Kujawa

This is the day.

Nine days short of twenty three years since Scotland last played at a major championship, Andy Robertson will lead eleven Scotsman out at Hampden Park to take on the Czech Republic at the European Championships. 2pm cannot come quick enough. I feel like I’ve been waiting for it since David Marshall palmed away Aleksandar Mitrović’s penalty in Belgrade seven months and two days ago.

Actually I’ve probably been waiting for it since full time in Saint Étienne 23 years ago!

I’ve been loving all the build up these past few weeks though. The special shows on the BBC have been a great watch, the podcasts that the two Johns have been putting out have been fantastic, and the videos from Radio Clyde to Tennents to Irn Bru to the SFA themselves have been inspiring.

I even enjoyed putting something together for our own good luck Scotland video!

One video in particular caught my attention though, and that was recent podcast guest Byron Lynch. He did a wonderful job, but one bit in particular jumped out at me when he highlighted a save that Allan McGregor made.

Allan McGregor played in qualifying? I’d completely forgotten about that!

Actually, I’m not surprised I forgot about it. We started this journey to today’s game way back in September 2018!

I’m pretty sure that as a tournament the UEFA Nations League has yet to really capture anyone’s imagination. I’m sure the Portuguese are fans of it having won the inaugural competition but that’s for the elite teams to concern themselves with.

Scotland started off in what I insisted on calling the C-Section of the Nations League. I won’t go into the complexities of how the Nation League actually works, but suffice to say we were in the third tier of the competition and drawn in one of four groups along side Israel and Albania.

What does this have to do with the Euros, asked nobody because we all know it by now. Well, with Euro 2020 coming up and UEFA keen to dangle a carrot or two to make countries take their new tournament seriously, four of the twenty four qualifiers for Euro 2020 would come from the four tiers of the Nations League.

Imagine being in the fourth tier of European football, knowing that a few decent performances could have you qualify for something for the first time! Exciting stuff!

So, with that in mind, Alex McLeish’s Scotland played our first Nations League match at Hampden Park against Albania in front of a less than half full stadium. And sure enough, when you look back at that game you’ll see not only Allan McGregor in goal, but Steven Naismith getting the second goal of the game after Berat Djimsiti had opened the scoring with an own goal.

This was an Albania team who just days earlier had beaten Israel 1-0 at home, so that put us top of the table. But then that good start was followed up by disappointment the following month as we travelled to Israel. Although Charlie Mulgrew scored from the spot after Naismith had been barged by Dor Peretz, it all went sour in the second half as Peretz levelled the game. John Souttar was then sent off after a second yellow, before Kieran Tierney fluffed a clearance into his own net and handed Israel the three points.

Israel followed that victory up with a 2-0 win at home to Albania to sit top of the table on six points with both ourselves and Albania on three. Thankfully though, it was still all in our own hands.

First off in November, Scotland travelled to Albania and were a goal up through Ryan Fraser when Mergim Mavraj head butted Ryan Christie to see red and reduced our opponents to ten men. Just before half time, Rey Manaj handled a Stuart Armstrong free kick inside his own penalty area and Steven Fletcher was on hand to double the lead from the spot. The second half then treated us to James Forrest scoring twice for Scotland, the second a peach of a volley with his left foot after he’d teed it up with his right.

But Forrest surpassed himself a few days later when Israel visited Hampden in the final game of the group. With the teams tied on six points, Scotland still had to win to top the group as a draw would be enough for Israel on the head to head. So when Beram Kayal scored within ten minutes, things did not look great for Scotland.

Step forward James Forrest. First he got onto a Stuart Armstrong shot which rebounded into his path for the equaliser. Second he finished off a wonderful counter attacking move to put Scotland in front just before half time, and third he completed his hat trick after a lovely touch from Fraser. Five goals in two games from a man who had never scored for Scotland prior to that week.

Of course, this is Scotland and things are never easy for us. Eran Zahavi pulled a goal back with quarter of an hour to go and now we had a nervy finish. Remember I said I saw McGregor in Byron Lynch’s video? With two minutes to go in this game he pulled off a stunning save from Tomer Hemed to ensure Scotland did indeed win the game and the group with it.

For the Nations League, this meant promotion to the B-Section for Scotland, which is nowhere near as funny to me as the C-Section sadly. but for Scotland it meant there was now a guaranteed safety net of a playoff place for us should we fail to qualify for the Euros through the more traditional seeded group qualification route.

The draw for that took place in December 2018 and saw third seeds Scotland in a group along with top seeds Belgium, second seeds Russia, fourth seeds Cyprus, fifth seeds Kazakhstan and sixth seeds San Marino. The games didn’t exactly fall kindly for us either as we were given four games in a row against the two teams seeded higher than us right in the middle of the ten games.

Not that it really mattered of course because Scotland all but blew it right from the first game. An absolutely humiliating performance in Kazakhstan saw us slump to a 3-0 defeat, with the first two of those goals from Yuriy Pertsukh and Yan Vorogovskiy coming in the first ten minutes of the game. The third came just after after time from Baktiyor Zainutdinov.

A 2-0 win away to San Marino followed, with goals from Kenny McLean and Johnny Russell, but the performance was pretty awful and it was the final straw for Alex McLeish’s second time in charge of the national team. By the time the next round of fixtures came around, McLeish had been sacked and a new man was in place.

Fresh from guiding Kilmarnock to a third place finish in the Premiership, Steve Clarke was immediately in charge of Scotland just a couple of weeks later. Barely in the door, he was taking over a demoralised national side, one that probably knew this group wasn’t going to go all that well for us with the four difficult games about to begin. Even the Cyprus game at Hampden that preceded those was a challenge. Andy Robertson gave Scotland the lead just after an hour with a terrific strike, but with just a few minutes left on the clock the unmarked Ionnis Kousoulos headed home an equaliser.

Then came that little bit of hope. Just a couple of minutes later, Fraser crossed the ball in for Oliver Burke and his header came back off the post. But the ball broke back to Burke who was able to finish off his own rebound for his first Scotland goal and Steve Clarke’s first win in charge of his first game.

Maybe that was a sign of things to come later, but we wouldn’t see it until much later on. The double header in June 2019 was finished off with an almost expected 3-0 defeat in Belgium. This was a Belgian side that were ranked number one in the world at the time, and still are, but actually Scotland did okay in this one despite making quite a few changes. It took the hosts until injury time in the first half to open the scoring through Romelu Lukaku. Lukaku indeed got the second goal as well just before the hour mark to effectively finish off the game as a contest, but the third goal was another injury time one, this time from Kevin De Bruyne.

When you look at those goalscorers you’re not really surprised we lost, especially when you think that Eden Hazard was in there assisting as well. But when you consider the defence that day was Greg Taylor making his debut, Stephen O’Donnell on the other side, and a central defensive pairing of Charlie Mulgrew and Scott McKenna, is it any wonder people were asking how many we would lose by? For a team still breaking in a new manager, this wasn’t bad at all.

For Scotland to have any chance, we knew we needed to take points in the double header at home to Russia and Belgium in September. First up was Russia, and when John McGinn opened the scoring after ten minutes there was a chance to believe it might happen. The hope lasted about half an hour before some disappointing defending allowed Artem Dzyuba to equalise. The Russians took control after that and when O’Donnell slid in during the second half to try to stop Yuri Zhirkov scoring in the second half, all he managed to do was knock the ball into his own net.

If that wasn’t enough to kill off our hopes, Belgium turned up a few days later and De Bruyne ran the show. He set up Lukaku for the first goal inside ten minutes, he set up Thomas Vermaelen for the second goal quarter of an hour later, he set up Toby Alderweireld several minutes after that, and just to cap it all off he scored the fourth goal himself inside the final ten minutes.

October brought the last of the tough games, and for a while Scotland held out. It was almost an hour into the game before Dzyuba scored. Magomed Ozdoev quickly made it two before Dzyuba got his second and Russia’s third. It wasn’t until this point in the game that Scotland even managed a shot but that didn’t go in and Aleksandr Golovin made it 4-0 late on in the game.

At this point in the group, Scotland were official out of the running and sitting fifth with only San Marino pointless behind us. Cyprus were in third a full four points ahead of us, and even Kazakhstan were a point above us. But at least the hard bit was over now. From this point forward, Scotland could build again. It’s always darkest before the dawn, as they say. We would need to shake it out if we wanted to make full use of that playoff spot we had secured under McLeish.

First up, a home tie against San Marino. Finally, an easy game again. There are no easy games in football you say? Tell that to John McGinn. It wasn’t that long ago that no Scotsman had scored a hat trick for the national side for decades. Steven Fletcher ended that run a few years ago against Gibraltar and actually did it twice that campaign. With Forrest doing it in the crucial Israel match in the Nations League, McGinn decided to get all three in the first half against San Marino.

Lawrie Reilly in 1952 was the last Scotland player to do that incidentally.

There were debut goals for both Lawrence Shankland and Stuart Findlay to come in the second half, whilst Armstrong scored late on with a free kick. Okay, it’s only San Marino but it’s not often you see Scotland score that many goals against anyone and you can only play what is in front of you. After being demoralised by Belgium and Russia, this is the kind of thing you want to see. It’s a start, and it moved us ahead of Kazakhstan and to within a point of Cyprus. The real test would come in November against those two.

The trip to Cyprus, on paper, was the trickier of the two games. We were a little lucky in this game too, as a Georgios Efrem shot his the bar, landed across the goal line and came back out… only for the goal not to be given. Soon thereafter, Ryan Christie curled home the opening goal. The lead lasted until just after half time when Efrem did managed to volley in a fine equaliser. Five minutes later though, John McGinn put Scotland back in front and that would see Scotland through the end of the game. That win moved Scotland up to third in the table and set us up nicely for some revenge in the final match.

The visit of Kazakhstan wasn’t the prettiest of games. Actually, Kazakhstan took the lead just after the half hour mark to give us all bad memories of the opening game of this qualifying campaign. But this wasn’t the same Scotland. The team that went in 1-0 down at half time came out with a bit more purpose in the second half. Within three minutes, McGinn’s free kick had deflected into the net for an equaliser. Scotland then went in front through Naismith, although you could say that in the build up to it McGinn got away with a barge. It would have been soft. McGinn scored in injury time to make it 3-1, and although technically the Kazakhs therefore had a better head to head over us, we had five more points than both them and Cyprus and finished third in the group – albeit a distant third behind two very good teams.

Third place wasn’t enough to qualify, so we knew we were falling back on the playoffs we had earned from the Nations League campaign at least with some decent results behind us now. We also knew who we would be facing. The four group winners in the C-Section who had earned their place in the playoffs were Scotland, Norway, Serbia and Finland – in that order. But Finland had finished second in their qualifying group behind Italy and so didn’t need their playoff place. So a replacement was needed to take on Scotland as Norway would take on Serbia.

Actually, across all the sections, only Iceland had failed to qualify in the A-Section, whilst three of the four group winners in the B-Section had also qualified. So what happens then? Well, you rank the teams in each section and pick the next one up until you have as many as you need. In this case, the B-Section only had four teams who didn’t qualify so they all ended up in that playoff. Four non-group winners in the C-Section also ended up in the playoffs – Bulgaria, Israel, Hungary and Romania. Three of those four would join Iceland in their playoff and the luck of the draw in November 2019 would decide which one.

You would think having already played Israel, there should have been some rule that would stop us having to play them again, but as luck would have it that was the team that avoided going to the more difficult playoff. The only consolation was that as top seed, Scotland got to host the one-off tie themselves.

So it was all set. Scotland would host Israel and the winner of that would go to the winner of Norway and Serbia for another one-off tie. The two semi finals and the final were scheduled for March 2020.

As the Israel game approached, we were all getting excited for Leigh Griffiths hitting form in a partnership with Odsonne Edouard. As we went into March, the next Nations League draw saw them completely redraw how it worked, scrap all the relegation that was supposed to have happened after the first one, and indeed promote a few more teams as a consequence too.

We laughed as the draw paired us up with Israel again, as well as the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Some of us are old enough to remember back when Scotland qualified for things and that was just one country, not two.

Alas, no one counted on a global pandemic bringing everything to a shuddering halt. The playoffs as well as the final tournament itself all ended up being postponed, as football went on hiatus.

When football restarted, UEFA did their best to squeeze in everything that was needed. The finals were moved to the summer of 2021, which had a subsequent knock on effect to the equivalent women’s tournament. But by this point there was also a need to schedule in the next Nations League campaign and the World Cup qualifying campaign for 2022, as well as the outstanding playoffs!

All of that meant that the playoffs and the Nations League would have to be played at the same time, meaning three international games in the space of a week.

September 2020 saw international football return, but with covid-19 still a major problem some questioned if it was the right thing to do. Scotland opened with a 1-1 draw at home to Israel, a precursor to the playoff that would follow the month after. Christie’s late first half penalty after McGinn had been bundled over was cancelled out in the second half with great strike from Eran Zahavi.

Scotland’s next match was in the Czech Republic, but for a short time it was claimed that it had been cancelled as the Czech squad were struck down by covid after they had beaten Slovakia 3-1. Yet the game went ahead as the Czechs called up whomever they could find into a brand new squad. The game went ahead, and the second string Czechs even took the lead through Jakub Pesek. But Lyndon Dykes got his first Scotland goal to equaliser and another Christie penalty gave Scotland the win.

Next up was the delayed playoff semi final, but if we had got lucky with covid against the Czechs then it quickly came back around to make life difficult for us. Stuart Armstrong tested positive just a couple of days before the game, and after the squad had got together. That one positive also took out Kieran Tierney and Ryan Christie who had to self-isolate.

But those who came in played their part. The game itself was something of a non-starter with very little of note through the ninety minutes and the same for the extra thirty. One save from Eran Zahavi by David Marshall was the only shot on target all game and the closest we came was a deep into extra time Liam Cooper header off the post. No goals meant a first ever penalty shootout for the Scottish national team.

John McGinn went first and scored. Eran Zahavi was first up for Israel but his effort was saved by Marshall. Callum McGregor, Scott McTominay and Lawrence Shankland all scored their penalties to keep Scotland ahead as the Israelis made sure they didn’t miss any more either. But when Kenny McLean stepped up and made it five out of five for Scotland, the tie was won and Scotland would be travelling to the final.

Surprisingly, in Belgrade. Prior to the game, most people thought Norway were the team to beat in the playoff – especially with home advantage in both ties if they made it – but they lost 2-1 in extra time to Serbia and that was that.

That would have to wait though as Scotland returned to Nations League duty just a few days later. First up was a visit by Slovakia, but an early second half goal from Dykes made sure the three points stayed in Glasgow. The Czechs were next to have a goal, but an even earlier Ryan Fraser strike in that one put Scotland firmly in the driving seat to top the group for the second campaign running. Suddenly we were dreaming of playing with the Elite at both the Euros and the Nations League!

12th November 2020. The playoff final away to Serbia. One game between us and a major tournament for the first time in 23 years. What happened next was probably the best 89 minutes that Scotland have played in years. It was calm, composed, controlled, everything you could want. You would have thought Scotland were the home team. Serbia barely laid a glove on us for 89 minutes. Okay, there was a Sasa Lukic chance midway through the first half that went wide, but that was about it.

When Ryan Christie found the corner of the net early in the second half, it was more than deserved. Andy Robertson had blazed a chance over the bar just a couple of minutes before. There were more chances too for both Callum McGregor and another for Christie, but both were just off target.

Scotland had it all under control for 89 minutes. Sadly, football lasts 90 minutes plus injury time. A last minute Serbian corner was floated in and Luka Jovic met it to head it straight into the ground. The ball looped up and nestled in the top corner of the net.

Not again Scotland. Not again. Please not again.

A nation that seems to find new and depressing ways to reach glorious failure was now seemingly trying to find yet another. We deserved to win this game and now we were drawing again.

If Scotland had run the regular time of this game, Serbia bossed extra time. A fingertip save from Marshall touched Nemanja Gudelj’s shot round the post to keep the game level. Scotland looked knackered, but we hung on and got to another penalty shootout.

Leigh Griffiths went first and scored. Dusan Tadic was next and he did likewise. Callum McGregor netted his penalty. Jovic, the man who had equalised, made sure his penalty went in too. McTominay put Scotland back in front, but Gudelj levelled once more. The much maligned Oli McBurnie showed little nerve in scoring his penalty, but once more the Serbs pegged us back through Aleksandar Katai. Kenny McLean, as he did against Israel, made sure Scotland scored five out of five once more. And then up stepped Aleksandar Mitrovic…

The penalty wasn’t a bad one. It was going to Mitrovic’s bottom right. But Marshall had done his homework and knew there was a good chance that’s where he was going to try and put it. He dived down to his left, got a strong hand to it and kept it out of the net.

Cue the bedlam. As fans watching in front of their TVs across the nation cheered in triumph, the Scotland players on the half way line ran towards the goal. As they did so, Marshall was checking with the referee to make sure nothing was going to rule it out and demand a retake. He must have been the coolest Scotsman on the planet at that point. The referee gave the sign that it was okay and there would be no retake just as the players reached Marshall. It could not have been timed any better, and the celebrations could really begin now.

Scotland had done it the hard way. But Scotland had done it. Scotland were going to Euro 2020. Finally.

David Marshall, Scotland hero. I mean it’s nice of the rest of the nation to catch up, he’s been a hero to me since I stood in the Camp Nou in March 2004 and watched him keep a clean sheet against arguably the best team on the planet at the time! It’s funny to think there’s more than sixteen years between his heroics in Barcelona and his heroics in Belgrade.

Some disappointment would follow in the coming days. 1-0 defeats away to Slovakia and Israel followed in the Nations League to see the top spot slip away to the Czechs who won all their games except the two against Scotland.

The World Cup qualifying draw the following month would once more pair us with fourth seeds Israel – as if we haven’t played them enough lately. It would also pair us with top seeds Denmark, second seeds Austria, fifth seeds the Faroe Islands and sixth seeds Moldova so actually the draw was relatively kind for a change. But the opening set of fixtures in March saw Scotland twice come from behind against Austria at home to draw 2-2, then draw 1-1 away to Israel before beating the Faroes 4-0 at home. Some decent results will be required after the summer, starting with a trip to Denmark, if Qatar 2022 is to be Scotland’s return to the world stage.

But that can wait for now. Today it’s all about Scotland’s return to the European stage after 25 years, and 23 years since our last appearance in a major finals. For ten tournaments now, our story has ended at the qualification stage. This time the story isn’t finished yet.

We continue our story this afternoon as we take on the Czech Republic at Hampden. They proved last year they’re a decent team even when not at full strength. But then again, so did we, particularly in that 1-0 win at Hampden when we were without several key players ourselves thanks to covid.

Fingers crossed that John Fleck the other week is our last issue with that in these championships.

We’ve waited a long, long time to get back here. That is undoubtedly an achievement in itself, one to be celebrated in its own merit, particularly given the topsy turvy time we had over the last three years. But now that we’re here, now that the opening game is finally today, we don’t want to be just making up the numbers.

So come on Scotland!