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  • Writer's pictureGordon Sheach

2021 - What a Year

What a year.

One that started with us looking forward to Scotland’s men returning to a Major Finals for the first time in 23 years, ends with us two games away from the grandest stage of them all – the FIFA World Cup.

On the latest episode of the Hampden Roar Podcast, we hosted a year-end awards show, looking back on all the amazing moments from the last 12 months.

Join me for a recap on the busiest and most memorable year of Scotland national team football in living memory.

Best Newcomer

This award recognises the best player to make their debut for Scotland in 2021. Remarkably, nine players made their first appearances in dark blue this year (total caps in brackets).

Che Adams (13), Kevin Nisbet (10), Billy Gilmour (10), David Turnbull (4), Nathan Paterson (6), Lewis Ferguson (2), Jacob Brown (1), Anthony Ralston (1) and Paul McGinn (1).

When it comes to the best newcomer, Nathan Patterson has made a big impact in a short amount of time. In his first start for Scotland it was his shot against Moldova at Hampden that led to Dykes opening the scoring. In the Faroes, his cross resulted in Dykes’ late winner and in Moldova he added a goal and an assist. Not bad for a guy who only turned 20 in October. The future of the right wing back position looks to be his.

Billy Gilmour has been a revelation for Scotland. The Chelsea midfielder made his competitive debut at Wembley during Euro 2020. It’s hard to imagine a tougher introduction to international football. He won man of the match.

By the end of the year, with 10 caps under his belt it’s starting to look like he runs Scotland’s midfield. At this rate it would seem possible he could overtake Kenny Dalglish as Scotland’s most capped player (King Kenny received 102 caps). His calmness and grace on the ball is un-matched, marking him out as one of the most exciting talents to come out of Scotland in living memory.

We’re giving the best newcomer award to Che Adams. He accepted the call-up from Steve Clarke in March to kick off the World Cup Qualifiers and he’s grown into the role ever since. Early goals against the Faroe Islands and Luxembourg were a taste of what was to come.

By the time he was smashing the ball past Kasper Schmeichel in the final game of the year, he’d already impressed with his technical ability, hold-up play and flourishing relationship with Lyndon Dykes. With the goals against Denmark & Moldova to close out the World Cup Qualifiers, he’s made it clear he can be our talisman up front for years to come.

Unsung Hero

Steve Clarke’s side are full of players who have caught the eye with their performances this year. Tierney, Robertson, McGinn, Gilmour and Dykes have all impressed whenever they take the field.

This award looks to recognise the players who have maybe gone under the radar.

Stephen O’Donnell is a player who has often unfairly drawn criticism from the Scotland support. His passion and love of playing for Scotland has always shone through. He’d be the first to admit his performance against the Czech Republic in the Euros wasn’t where he’d have liked. Knowing the criticism swirling, the mental strength to go to Wembley and deliver the outstanding performance he did shows the strength of his character. Later in the year, he delivered an outstanding performance in Austria despite being clearly below match fitness. He’s a warrior.

Another honourable mention belongs to Grant Hanley. Having spent three years away from the Scotland team it looked like his international career was over. He returned to kick off March’s World Cup Qualifiers against Austria and slotted straight back in. The role in the centre of the back three seemingly suiting his strengths far more than the back four he used to play in for Scotland. That his departure from the Croatia game at the Euros with an injury was met with devastation among the Tartan Army shows how far his reputation had evolved.

We’re going to give the unsung hero award to Leeds United’s Liam Cooper. He’d been in and around squads for a long time without ever cementing a position or role in the starting eleven. He had to be patient. His chance came in the final two World Cup Qualifiers with Grant Hanley injured. The pressure was peaking as Scotland looked to secure the Playoff in Moldova before nailing down a seeded Playoff in the final game against Denmark. In both games, Cooper excelled. It was his clever header at the back post that teed up Souttar to score against the Danes. Hanley has excelled in 2021 at CB, it’s clear that Cooper is an excellent deputy.

Goal of the year

This is a fiercely contested category, and one that’s completely subjective. Appropriately, Scotland scored 21 goals in 2021 – from scrappy tap-ins to team goals, long range efforts and an overhead kick!

We’ll start at the beginning. John McGinn scored Scotland’s second goal of the year, drawing us level again against Austria and salvaging a 2-2 draw. He’d lingered forward after a cross into the box had been cleared, McGregor headed it back into the box where, in a moment of joyous improvisation, McGinn met it with an overhead kick – sending the ball into the far corner. This goal was so important, who’s to say where our World Cup campaign would have gone if we’d fallen three points behind Austria on day one. The only disappointment was the goal was scored in front of empty stands.

At Euro 2020, having failed to score in the opening two matches (despite numerous chances), we were facing the prospect of departing the tournament pointless and goalless. For that alone, Callum McGregor’s goal against Croatia is one of the most important goals of the year, if not the best.

Controlling a clearance, McGregor rifled the ball into the bottom left corner for his first Scotland goal. Since the Playoff Final in Serbia, McGregor’s influence in this Scotland midfield has grown and the goal was a fitting reward for a player who fans have really taken to in blue.

For me, watching the game in the Glasgow Green fanzone, the carnage that followed the goal is one of my favourite memories from the tournament.

Jumping to the end of the year, Che Adams goal that secured the 2-0 win over Denmark has to be one of the most ruthless goals I’ve ever seen Scotland score. In the 86th minute, Kenny McLean wins the ball back half-way inside his own half. Nine seconds and nine touches later the ball has gone through McGinn and Armstrong before being smashed into the corner by Adams.

The way he gave the keeper the eyes before opening his body and side footing the ball straight into the net (where it rolled straight up the net) was so pleasing on the eye. It was only later having watched videos of the goal that I realised goal music was played – the Hampden Roar completely drowned it out!

Our winner is John McGinn’s goal against Israel at Hampden. Excellent interplay between Tierney and Robertson down the left invited the skipper to drive into space, play a quick one-two with Adams who fed McGinn who had found a pocket of space outside the box.

One touch to control the ball and he sent a perfect shot curling into the far left corner. From my vantage point in the East stand I could tell it was in as soon as it left his boot. “Magic” summed up Ally McCoist on co-comms. Magic was correct.

Game of the year

Another fairly subjective category, with games being judged on how you enjoyed them and remember them.

The Euros game at Wembley – England 0-0 Scotland – was a real sliding doors moment. We arrived at the home of English football at a low ebb. Pre-tournament optimism had been massively dented after the 2-0 loss to the Czech Republic at Hampden. Imagine if we’d lost comfortably there. Do you think Steve Clarke would still be Scotland manager? Fortunately, that’s not a reality we need to consider because Scotland put in a resolute, spirited and credible performance – limiting the Euro 2020 finalists to one shot on target from outside the box.

The game also included Stephen O’Donnell’s hounding of Jack Grealish and Billy Gilmour announcing himself on the world stage, making his competitive debut.

Going to the end of the year, Scotland 2-0 Denmark was one of the highest quality Scotland performances I’ve ever seen. Against the team ranked 10th in the world we controlled long spells of the game, created excellent chances and were it not for an outstanding goal-line clearance from Stuart Armstrong we would have won by three.

However, the winner in this category has to be Scotland 3-2 Israel. Against a familiar foe that we had struggled against, it was so important for our self confidence that we won. The manner in which we won will ensure this game lives in our memories for years to come.

It’s a commentator’s cliché to speak about “the game that had everything”. This one literally did. Conceding early, we equalised with a McGinn wondergoal before conceding again while the “super John McGinn” song was still echoing around the ground. On the stroke of half-time we won and missed a penalty.

Into the second half and Lyndon Dykes quickly atoned for missing the penalty by karate kicking home an equaliser. Or so we thought. The referee had given a free kick for a head knock on the Israeli defender who flailingly tried to stop Dykes from scoring. A VAR check would show no contact with the defender and the decision was reversed. 2-2.

Chances would come and go as the minutes ticked away. Into the fourth minute of extra time and McGinn’s corner would be flicked on by Jack Hendry before being bundled home by Scott McTominay at the back post. The Manchester United midfielder scoring his first Scotland goal in Fergie-time in front of the watching Sir Alex? Perfect.

The full-time whistle was met with delirious celebrations in the stand as fifty thousand fans stayed to boogie the night away. It was wonderful.

Young Player of the Year

Let’s be honest, we might as well call this the Billy Gilmour Award.

The young man has become one of (if not) the youngest players to reach ten caps. In those ten caps, he’s been on the winning side seven times, with two draws and only one loss (the away game in Denmark with only 16 available outfield players). When Scotland have lined up with the midfield three of McGregor, Gilmour & McGinn we’ve never lost.

Billy is a unique talent. He can take the ball under any circumstances and you can be confident his first touch will be into space and his second will be an intelligent zipped pass to a team-mate. The way he reads the game is incredible – he knows when to hold possession and when to launch an attack with a probing pass or run. Ten caps into his career and it already looks like he runs this midfield. It’s a privilege to know we could get to watch him play for Scotland for the next ten or more years.

Honourable mention has to go to Nathan Patterson who was profiled in the best newcomer category. Despite playing minimal football for Rangers, Steve Clarke has kept faith with the youngster, rewarded with excellent performances. Against Moldova he gave a glimpse into a really exciting future for Scotland with attacking threat coming down both wings.

Moment of the year

2021 has been filled with unforgettable moments as we celebrated a goal at a major finals and finished second in a qualifying group for the first time since 2004.

Many of these moments have been mentioned earlier in this piece – McGregor’s goal against Croatia at Euro 2020, the feeling of immense relief at the final whistle against England and the post-match scenes against Israel.

For me – the moment of the year is Lyndon Dykes’ equalising goal against Israel. As much for what it was and what it meant.

For Dykes, it was a moment of redemption for the predictable penalty that Marciano saved to end the first half. The finish was aesthetically pleasing, smashed past the keeper with the sole of Dykes’ boot. Then there was the anxiety of the VAR check before being given which allowed us to celebrate the goal twice.

More widely, from that moment the momentum on the pitch and in the stands felt unstoppable. It was inevitable we would win that day and it was a wave we rode all the way to the Playoffs, without conceding again.

Player of the Year

Another impossibly competitive category. Andy Robertson has really flourished in the role of Scotland captain this year. It’s so clear what leading Scotland means to him & how the players respect him. He’s 16 caps away from being the player with the most caps as captain in Scotland’s history.

It’s still amazing to think that Lyndon Dykes made his Scotland debut less than 18 months ago. He’s been a huge part of Scotland’s success. This year he became the first Scotland player since 1969 to score in four consecutive games. Considering those goals came as winners v Moldova and Austria, an equaliser v Israel and a late winner v the Faroes. It’s hard to quantify how much Lyndon contributed to Scotland getting to the Playoffs.

As mentioned earlier, Grant Hanley has really impressed on his return to the Scotland side. Kieran Tierney has quietly been excellent (with his absence dearly felt against the Czech Republic).

The winner simply has to be John McGinn. The inspiration behind the Tartan Army’s new favourite song had an incredible year. Of the 17 goals Scotland scored in World Cup qualifying, Super John McGinn has a direct hand in 9 (that’s 53%).

Austria (H) – Scored with an overhead kick. Faroes (H) – Scored twice, a shot and a header from Tierney crosses. Israel (H) – Scored and provided the corner which led to the winner. Moldova (A) – set up Patterson for his goal and gave him the ball to cross for Adams’ goal. Denmark (H) – His corner was flicked back for Souttar to score the opener and he passed to Armstrong who fed Adams for the second.

Between his passing, scoring, tackling, crossing and his patter in interviews – he’s the talisman of this side. Congratulations John.


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