A Tartan Triumph
After an excruciating 22 years without international qualification, Scotland have finally reached their holy grail, after defeating Serbia to confirm their place at next summer’s European Championships. Calum Muldoon rounds up the reaction from Thursday’s match and what it truly means for the whole nation.
As Scotland goalkeeper David Marshall stood ready for one of the most important moments of his career, six million people held their breath. Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic put the ball down on the spot and attempted to compose himself. He took a steady run up and tried to place the shot into the bottom right corner. Marshall was across in an instant, his strong left hand deflecting the ball back towards the Serbian forward. In that moment, a nation roared.
Scotland had booked a spot in the European Championships due to take place next summer – the first major tournament that the men’s team would be attending in 22 years. Marshall wrote himself into Scottish folklore with that all-important save, a save which seemed to bring belief back to Scottish football and its fan. This was a night that many people will never forget, especially for the men who did their nation proud on a cold night in Belgrade.
The nation partied like they’d won the World Cup – understandably so, after an excruciatingly hard qualification process. A year ago, if you’d told Scotland fans that their beloved country would make it to the Euros, many would have laughed in your face. After opening our campaign with a disastrous 3-0 loss to Kazakhstan, our hopes of automatic qualification were put to the chopping block by the ruthless Belgium and Russia, who would go on to place first and second respectively. The Scots were fortunate to scrape their way to third after some tightly-contested matches against Cyprus both home and away.
Even though dreams of European glory were not completely dashed, fans sighed and shrugged the upcoming qualifying game against Israel off as an almost guaranteed defeat. They expected the usual pattern; a good first half, they start to relax, they concede last minute. Standard stuff. However, after 120 goalless minutes and a successful penalty shootout, some hope returned to the nation.
However, it was not enough as supporters knew they would have to face either Norway and wonderkid Erling Håland or Serbia and their vicious attack led by Fulham frontman Mitrovic. Even though Scotland would face the preferred side of the two in Serbia, few expected the cycle of false hope to break. It took a beautiful shot from Celtic midfielder Ryan Christie and a calm mindset during the penalty shootout from the rest to prove their doubters wrong.
Heartache is too common in this small nation when it comes to football, and we have been consistently mocked by other British nations for the poor style of play on display during most matches. The last six managers have failed to pull the Scots out of this slump and frankly, nobody really expected former Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke to make much of a difference. Not only did he defy the odds of qualifications, he has not lost a game this year so far and if they avoid a loss against Slovakia and Israel, it will stamp this talented Scotland team into history as one of the greatest in recent memory.
Previous Scotland squads have often been plagued with issues with both confidence and coordination, resulting in the re-occurring disappointment that the Tartan Army have become all too familiar with. Having had some competent managers since 1998, such as Walter Smith, Craig Levein and Gordon Strachan, it seemed as though we were cursed with misfortune. Through the years, there always seemed to be at least one weak link in the system – all it took was a slight tweak from Clarke and hope has returned to Hampden.
The introduction of former Livingston and current Queen’s Park Rangers striker Lyndon Dykes has rejuvenated the Scottish front line, while a surplus of great choices for left back in Kieran Tierney, Andrew Robertson and Greg Taylor allows the play to flow nicely up the wing, with a fantastic batch of midfielders all available to advance the play and supply the forwards. It’s a real shame that Scotland fans weren’t aware of how good this team could be before this campaign, but with years of negative preconceptions behind the team, each game was met with the same pessimistic attitude. Now, Scotland fans can count themselves lucky that this team will be representing the nation on such a massive stage after years of inadequacy.
Furthermore, a win like this could not have come at a better time. With the entire nation dealing with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, a victory across the continent can still be a blissful escape from the economic and social stresses brought about by having spent most of 2020 stuck indoors. That is how important sport can be, and what it can do for the mind. You can let 22 men on a pitch take your worries away for 90 minutes, as you become engrossed in the tension and thrills a game can provide. With unemployment levels in Scotland rising to 4.5%, the need for football is at a high. You can tell how much a win like this means to fans, purely based off of speaking to them. Many never thought they would see it happen by the end of their lifetime and younger fans thought they would be seeing qualification happen alongside their children in years to come. Numerous supporters were left in tears seeing their country achieve what was thought to be impossible and rightfully so after a year of hardship. Ryan Christie was correct in saying, “It’s been a horrible year for everyone and we knew could give a little something for this country,” because that is exactly what they did.
It is hard to find a nation like Scotland who has football as deep in its heart as it does. A sense of pride was in the air as you walked the streets on Friday morning following a night of celebration. Since the wait for a major tournament is over, fans can now turn their heads to next summer where a tough group is waiting for them consisting of England, Croatia, and the Czech Republic. While more difficulties regarding COVID-19 could be in store for fans, they can at least say they are proud of their national team. It might not be much but it is a small reconciliation for a miserable year for many. As Flower of Scotland blares into the night, you cannot help but stop and admire the passion on display from the fanbase. While the future seems murky regarding the pandemic, Scots can at least see a major tournament as a small glimmer of hope on the horizon.