From kAZAKHSTAN TO EURO 2020
Well, you know, this all started with the Nations League, but starting with Astana seemed like a more dramatic tone.
It’s surreal to think it’s been almost three years since James Forrest’s hat-trick against Israel, sealed us a place in the Nations League Play-Offs...giving us a home semi-final against Israel. Only Scotland, huh? And now we’re talking about this side of a major international tournament finals appearance. Our first one in 23 years. One that was way, way too short, but one this writer enjoyed every single second of. And whet the appetite for a lot more tournament finals appearances.
The Nations League, huh? What a format. Beating Israel and Albania and booking a much needed play-off spot right before the qualifying group. Might be my favourite competition in world football for this reason alone. Seeing off Albania comfortably twice, losing away in Israel, then a 3-2 win over them at home to secure top spot in the group, promotion to League B, and that all-important Euro 2020 Playoff place. That really did come in handy.
Especially considering our start to the actual qualifying group. Kazakhstan. A new low, another statement in years of “Glorious Failure”. Massive emphasis on the latter word, on that one. The official Scotland national football team Twitter account sending out the tweet “Kazakhstan go chasing a fourth” might be the lowest point I’ve hit as a Scotland fan. Coming from someone who was in the stands when we lost to Italy in the dying seconds, when we went 1-0 down to Liechtenstein, that’s absolutely saying something. Despite, or maybe adding to this, a 2-0 win over San Marino a few days later, Alex McLeish’s second spell in charge of Scotland was over almost as soon as it had begun.
And thus, enter Steve Clarke. The former Kilmarnock manager, who had just taken them to third in the league and a place in Europe, and considering what’s happened since with Kilmarnock, shows you how long ago that feels - just two years! - was brought in with a view of taking Scotland to Euro 2020 and the World Cup in Qatar in 2022. It did feel like Scotland were chasing shadows in a group with the number one team in the world at the time, Belgium, and a Russia side who had just reached the Quarter-Finals of the World Cup in their own backyard, and the massive handicap of a 3-0 loss in Kazakhstan to boot. Clarke’s first game in charge was a 2-1 win over Cyprus, where Scotland showed good character to react to Cyprus’ equaliser with an Oliver Burke winner, after Andy Robertson had belted in a spectacular goal that UEFA seemed to love to use in the buildup to Euro 2020 whenever they talked about Scotland. Successive defeats to Russia, Belgium, and Russia again, the last two as 4-0 defeats and the former a 2-1 loss at Hampden that all but slammed the automatic qualification door shut in the first place, and it was clear: Clarke had work to do with this team. That meant one thing: the Euro 2020 back door would need to be used. The playoffs.
Some hope came through the last three qualifiers, the Lion and the Unicorn and all that, smashing through San Marino, Cyprus and Kazakhstan in the final three games, avenging Astana somewhat, and hope for the playoffs. In the meantime, we learned our potential fate for the Euros: Czech Republic, Croatia, and of course, England. Two games at Hampden and a meeting with the Auld Enemy at Wembley. All the motivation in the world, just two games away.
And then: everything came to a shuddering halt, and I mean: everything. The Coronavirus pandemic changed our entire lives, and understandably, everything was put on hold. The Playoffs, and Euro 2020 itself, would have to wait. The final tournament postponed a year to the summer of 2021, the playoffs until further notice - as it turned out, October and November. Strangely enough, it worked out that the Play-Off Semi-Finals and Final would have a month between them, rather than the originally scheduled four days, and would come at the start of the international breaks. A small silver lining in a horrible, horrible time in all of our lives.
So, October, and the rearranged playoffs. First up, Israel at Hampden. Yes, Israel, again. After a draw of four potential opponents saw us handed Israel over the potential of a meeting with Bulgaria, Romania or Hungary. A familiar opponent at this point, considering that we had them in the previous Nations League group, the as it was current Nations League group, and would go on to draw them in qualifying for the Qatar World Cup in 2022. A tense and drab draw that saw neither of the teams be able to be separated, or able to hit the back of the net, in 120 minutes. A David Marshall save from Israel’s star man, Eran Zahavi, and five perfect penalties from Scotland later, and it was a place in the playoff Final, and a trip to Belgrade to face Serbia for the right to go to Euro 2020.
We all know the story from here. Belgrade. The most tense night in probably all our footballing lives to date, certainly those of a Scottish persuasion. On the night, Scotland looked the team far more up for it, and were rightfully rewarded with a Ryan Christie strike to take the lead. 40 odd minutes of absolute nightmare-inducing tension followed, then a crushing Luka Jovic equaliser. Oh Scotland. Again, Scotland. Same old Scotland, right?
Wrong. After surviving extra time, just, it was penalties again. This time again, five perfect penalties from Scotland, and Alexsandr Mitrovic had to score for Serbia. He didn’t. 23 years of waiting, and waiting, and waiting, gone in a flash with a David Marshall save (and a quick meme-worthy check to the referee). It was indeed, a happy ending for Scotland for a change. The entire team went on to potentially the drunkest night in some significant time, a Baccara song swept the nation. Ryan Christie cried. I cried. You cried. We all absolutely cried. I think I was still halfway crying at 3 in the morning celebrating while watching an American pal’s Twitch stream. This meant everything to me, and if you’re reading this and of a Scottish persuasion, I imagine it meant everything to you, too. Scotland, you’ve given us a lot of pain over the years, but you gave us Belgrade and a place at a tournament for the first time in 23 years. Yes Sir, I CAN Boogie.
In the seven months between then and the finals, we’ve had the most hungover game in world football against Slovakia, who qualified on the same night we did, two trips to Israel, a spectacular John McGinn overhead kick against Austria and a 4-0 beating of the Faroe Islands. The odd situation of beginning a World Cup qualifying campaign, then stopping to play in a major international finals in the Euros, before going back to qualifying. Another sign of the strange times we live in. Beyond that, a sticker album with Scotland players in it. A tournament preview edition of magazines with Scotland players on the cover. “Who’s on the Plane”, or “Who’s on the Bus”, as it turned out to be with us hosting two of our three games. Fans back in the stands for the finals, albeit in limited numbers. The squad announcement. The Tennent’s adverts. The BBC and ITV intros featuring Scotland players. Scotland were well and truly back in the big time.
After 8,392 days away, Scotland were back at a men’s international tournament finals in our first game against Czech Republic. The Biffy Clyro “Now I’m Everyone” opener on BBC was absolutely incredible and the hype built around our opening game. The noise, feeling and emotions of “Flower of Scotland” at a tournament again is something that will live with me for a long, long time and something I will always be thankful for. Unfortunately, on the day, that’s as good as it got for us. In the 42nd minute, Patrik Schick slid home the Czech Republic opener, and then David Marshall was caught somewhat out of his box for the second as Schick lobbed him from about 20,000 miles out for a goal that will be replayed over and over in tournament highlights for years to come. Welcome back to the big time, aye? Just wasn’t to be, and the game we potentially needed to win the most was lost 2-0. Not the greatest start.
Onto London, onto Wembley, and onto England. The game that stuck out as the motivation to qualify when the draw was made, and the one we were all excited about the most when we reached the finals last November. We heard it all in the buildup: “Scotland get battered, everywhere they go”. “England should be looking to score six or seven”. Rio Ferdinand’s “I can only see one result and that’s England winning”. Constant replays of a goal scored fifteen years ago. But on the positive sides of things: London being taken over by the sounds of “We’ve Got McGinn, Super John McGinn”, to the point where a reveal for the recording artist Olamide on the night before the game has the Super John McGinn song in the background. The traditional washing up liquid in the fountains, this time at Leicester Square. Hope, more than expectation, for this one.
We know how it turned out. A good performance, our best of the tournament, and to date, the only team yet to concede to England. Billy Gilmour absolutely running the show and proving why he will more than likely be an absolute star in world football. A tense, tight performance that we absolutely deserved at least a point from. A good draw against the eventual runners up is nothing to be sniffed at. And, the only team to not concede against them in the entire tournament.
However, the bad news coming out of that game, after Billy Gilmour's star performance, was Gilmour then testing positive for COVID right before our game with Croatia. A huge loss for the game that would be badly missed on the night. Gilmour will be likely a driving force in the Scotland midfield for years to come, especially with his post Euros move to Norwich City on loan, but he would be missed on the night.
And so, onto Croatia, back to Hampden. “McGinn and We’re In”, and all that. Just the World Cup Runners-Up to face, a win needed to reach the knockout stages of a major international finals for the first time ever. However, after a bright start from Scotland, it was Croatia who took the lead, with Vlasic finding his way past Marshall for the opener. Scotland needed the reply, and on the 41st minute, after almost two and a half games and 23 years of waiting, Scotland’s first goal of Euro 2020. Robertson found Che Adams, who played it back to Callum McGregor, who found the back of the net. Absolute pandemonium inside Hampden, the Glasgow fanzone, and homes and pubs up and down the country. Callum McGregor continued the long running streak of players with “Mc” in their surname scoring for Scotland at the Euros, and we went in all square. What’s that feeling? Hope? Belief?
After a golden chance for John McGinn went agonisingly wide, and if he had just hit it with his other foot...Luka Modric added to the list of “Sensational Euro 2020 worldies scored against Scotland” with just simply a stunning strike that you could only just hold your hands up about, an absolute bolt from just outside the box. Topped off a fantastic performance from Modric that proved why he is still amongst the world’s best. He then turned provider to Ivan Perisic in the 76th minute. 3-1, game over. Unfortunately, we were well beaten by one of the best teams in the tournament and that was indeed that. A disappointing end to our first appearance at a major finals in 23 years, and the dream of reaching the knockout rounds would have to continue to wait.
So, as I write this with Italy having won the Euros just hours before, the end of a fantastic tournament and one I was very proud for us to be even just a small part of. A beginning, not an end. A lot to take forward towards the World Cup qualifiers in September, a lot of lessons to be learned. We went from being on the sidelines for 23 years in men’s international football to being back in the bigtime. We’ve got a taste for it now, and even though it didn’t last as long as we would’ve liked, hopefully, the first of many tournaments with this group of players. I’ve got a feeling it won’t be 23 years of waiting this time around.
See you in Qatar, aye?
Editor: Thanks to Stuart Tomlin for contributing this article. You can follow him on Twitter here. Anyone who has a story to tell, reach out via DM on Twitter or Instagram or email firstname.lastname@example.org