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Rising Nations: Scotland back from the wilderness

22 Years On From Their Last Taste of a Major International Tournament, Scotland and the Tartan Army will be ‘Boogieing’ Their Way to the Euros Next Summer.

As a country which has famously hailed both world-class players – namely Dalglish, Law and Souness, as well as managers – including Ferguson, Shankly and Busby, the sport of football has long been synonymous with the nation of Scotland.

In as much as this level of quality may have waned in recent decades, the nation’s quench for the sport and its place at the heart of the Scottish psyche remains as strong as ever. As such, a 2018 Fan Attendance Report from the European Professional Football League uncovered Scotland to be the European nation with the highest average weekly football attendance per capita.

In spite of this, after a series of gut-wrenching qualification near misses, even the most ardent of Scotland supporters had begun to cast doubt over whether they would ever again be able to follow their nation to a major football tournament.

This has all changed following the events of November 12 – with David Marshall’s saved penalty from Serbia striker Aleksandr Mitrović in the Euros playoff final in Belgrade booking Scotland a place at next summer’s championships.

With a team packed full of top-class dynamic players, and a tactically astute manager in Steve Clarke, Scotland will be looking to make their mark amongst the European elite next summer.

An Era of ‘Glorious Failure’

Previously a regular fixture of major international competition, qualifying for a total of six World Cups and two Euros in the 25 years preceding France ’98, Scotland as a uniquely passionate football nation have for more than two decades been toiling to return to their former heights.

The country has continued to produce high calibre footballers – including Darren Fletcher, Barry Ferguson and Scott Brown, but not at the same rate and volume as it once did. This has made qualification to major tournaments increasingly difficult.

Succumbing to Euros play-off final defeats to England and the Netherlands in 1999 and 2003 respectively, the Scots also came to within a win against Italy at Hampden from qualifying for Euro 2008. After taking the lead against the world champions, Scotland eventually languished to a devastating 2-1 defeat.

This perpetual cycle of falling just short of qualification at the final hurdle, regularly going toe to toe with top opponents whilst slipping up against relative minnows, led to the Scotland national team becoming renowned as experts of ‘glorious failure’.

Such a prolonged period of constant disappointment inevitably spawned the cultivation of an atmosphere of pessimism amongst the Tartan Army and a despondent attitude towards the national team from the outside.

Gordon Sheach, founder of social platform The Tartan Scarf dedicated to the Scottish national team, was 9 years old the last time Scotland qualified for a major tournament at France ’98. With fond memories of “running home from school just in time to make kickoff” for Scotland’s group opener against Brazil, Gordon had since grown used to the heartbreak attached with being a Scotland supporter:

“With every new failure, every new way we find to mess it up and not get it done – you do start to doubt. You kind of get used to the idea that we just don’t qualify,” Gordon Sheach tells First Time Finish.

Fast forward to November 2020, with manager Steve Clarke at the wheel and a band of talented, hungry players adorning the dark blue jersey, and this atmosphere can be felt to have been lifted.

For Belgrade was not to be yet another site of ‘glorious failure’ for the Scots in the Euros playoff final earlier this month, but rather that of ‘glorious triumph’.

Clarke the Alchemist

The role of manager Steve Clarke in Scotland’s recent revival ought not to be downplayed. After a difficult first year or so in charge following his appointment in May 2019, featuring heavy defeats at the hands of Belgium and Russia, Clarke has been able to firmly put his own stamp on this Scots side prompting a striking upturn in results in recent months.

With more time spent on the training pitch, and all of his best players finally injury-free and available to him, Clarke inspired his charges to an eight-match unbeaten run beginning in October 2019 ahead of the Euros playoff final against Serbia.

Implementing a new formation, characterised by the use of three centre-backs and wing-backs, Clarke has made this Scotland side markedly more defensively organised and resilient.

Very much a disciple of José Mourinho, serving as the Portugese’s assistant manager at Chelsea in the mid-2000s, Clarke’s Scotland team fits his old master’s mould of being first and foremost difficult to beat and tactically disciplined.

Gordon is full of admiration for the way that Clarke has been able to install these principles within this Scotland side:

“You can’t underestimate the tactical plan he’s put into place, which has made us harder to beat – we needed that. He had to shut the back door and build from the back. He has brought a steely confidence to the side.”

The performance and result in the playoff final against Serbia in Belgrade represented the tipping point of his administration as Scotland manager – bringing his coaching philosophy into life in triumphant fashion.

Defensively diligent and assured in possession, Scotland Hall of Famer Ally McCoist described the away performance as the best he had seen from the national team in ‘many a year’.

Although there is still much work for Steve Clarke to do before next summer, as Nations League defeats to Slovakia and Israel have demonstrated, this achievement of qualification to the Euros has unequivocally etched his name into Scottish football folklore forever.

Premier League Stars

What is clear about Scotland’s new three-at-the-back formation is that it offers a platform for Steve Clarke to find a solution to one of his central selection dilemmas – that of how to accommodate both star left-backs Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney within the same starting XI.

A hot topic of debate amongst the Tartan Army, Steve Clarke has decided to employ Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney on the left of a back three with Liverpool’s Andy Robertson in a more advanced left wing-back position as team captain.

That these standout players are only two of several Scottish stars currently shining in the English Premier League underlines the degree of quality at manager Clarke’s disposal.

Man United’s midfield metronome Scott McTominay has been successfully deployed as a ball playing defender in Scotland’s new look back three, whilst Leeds United captain Liam Cooper provides an experienced option at the back.

In midfield, Aston Villa’s John McGinn has arguably been Scotland’s best player over the last year, contributing with seven goals in his last 13 international appearances. In Southampton’s Stuart Armstrong and Newcastle United’s Ryan Fraser Scotland are endowed with a further creative spark and dynamic edge from middle to front.

Chelsea’s precocious 19-year-old central midfielder Billy Gilmour is yet another Scot to keep a close eye on amongst the glitz and glamour of the Premier League, representing one of the most exciting young prospects the country has produced in a long time despite being yet to receive his first full international cap.

Gordon is enthralled by this emergence of Premier League talent within the current Scotland setup:

“I don’t remember a better period where we’ve had more players playing at such a high level, not just being in and around Premier League squads, but being absolutely pivotal to what those teams do.”

This Scotland squad is also blessed with players playing at a good level in both an improving Scottish Premiership and an ever-competitive English Championship.

In Scotland’s playoff final battle against Serbia, five of the starting XI were domestic based players, with Old Firm trio Callum McGregor, Ryan Christie and Ryan Jack alongside Motherwell duo Declan Gallagher and Stephen O’Donnell all vital cogs in this Scottish machine.

Adding in two of the headline-making heroes during the national team’s recent renaissance – Derby County’s penalty saving extraordinaire David Marshall and QPR’s Australian-born striker Lyndon Dykes, as well as important squad players such as Norwich City’s Kenny McLean and Nottingham Forest’s Scott McKenna, the Championship in England can also be identified as a hotbed of Scottish internationals.

Put together, this Scottish cohort of players has developed into a tight-knit unit, with manager Steve Clarke and his staff successfully fostering a ‘club-like’ atmosphere within the international camp which has duly paid dividends on the park.

History Beckons

With Hampden Park in Glasgow one of 12 selected host cities for next summer’s Euros, it seems only fitting for this to be the tournament to mark Scotland’s long-awaited return to the pinnacle of international football

COVID-permitting, the city of Glasgow will be awash with Scots in full kilted regalia by the time the Euros comes around, with the sound of the bagpipes serenading the emergence of the likes of Andy Robertson and John McGinn as representatives of a new wave of Scottish football heroes on an international stage.

With two group matches scheduled to take place at home at Hampden, against beatable opposition in the Czech Republic and an ageing Croatia outfit, Steve Clarke’s charges will be looking to achieve what no Scotland national side before them has been able to – and progress through to the knockout stages of a major finals.

Sandwiched between these two Hampden fixtures is a true date with destiny for the Scots: the sort of match that needs little or no introduction. The meeting of England and Scotland on June 18 2021 at Wembley unquestionably represents one of the competition’s standout group fixtures, as football’s oldest rivalry is resumed before the watchful eyes of the whole of Europe.

Given England’s lack of a convincing identity and structure under the auspices of an under-pressure manager in Gareth Southgate at present, Scotland could enter this Wembley showdown well placed to pull off a famous upset against the ‘Auld Enemy’.

Whatever the outcome of this match, a repeat of a fabled Euro ’96 clash at the old Wembley stadium defined by an iconic Paul Gascoigne wondergoal, it will mark the sort of occasion which is likely to live long in the memory for football supporters both north and south of the border.

Make no mistake – this Scotland team will not be looking to merely make up the numbers at the Euros next summer. Placed in a favourable group, with a third-place finish perhaps enough for the Scots to make history and qualify for the last 16, this group of players will be well aware of the opportunity that presents itself.

This is a fact not lost on Scotland’s captain Andy Robertson, himself a Champions League and Premier League winner:

“There’s no good just qualifying for a tournament and saying ‘OK that’s the box ticked’ and not trying to progress from that. We need to go and try and be competitive.”

Who knows: a positive Scotland showing at next summer’s Euros could well prove to be the catalyst needed to not only instil the belief in this current group of players to qualify for future tournaments, but help inspire a future generation towards ensuring that the country never again endures such a lengthy period in the wilderness of international football.

Special thanks to Gordon Sheach for his great insight regarding the Scotland national team. Follow his work on Twitter via:

@TheTartanScarf & @GSheach

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