The Scotland National Teams are on the cusp of an exciting new era. This month, Scotland’s Men will kick off a qualifying campaign looking to make it back-to-back success for the first time this century.
Later in the year, Scotland’s Women will start their journey to the next World Cup with memories of appearances at Euro ’17 & World Cup ’19 Finals still fresh.
This offers the perfect opportunity for reflection and a culture shift. An opportunity to re-define who we are, to ourselves and how we present ourselves to the world.
For as long as I can remember, there has been a phrase associated with the Scotland national team that I believe has acted like a mental millstone round the necks of our players – the idea of glorious failure.
What does it even mean?
It would appear the concept of glorious failure has evolved over the years. Some of the earliest references I have found include the football equivalent of being carried off the pitch on our shield, defeated but having given everything. A loss to be proud of or being outdone by fixtures elsewhere.
Becoming the first team in World Cup history to be knocked out of the group stage without losing a game in ’74. Beating one of the best teams in the world, the Netherlands, at the World Cup in ’78 and being knocked out anyway.
In the 23 years since 1998, glorious failure seems to have evolved into something else.
At times it was an appreciation of a positive performance that didn’t get the right result – beating England at Wembley in ’99 while being eliminated from the Playoffs on aggregate, losing to Italy in the last minute in ’07 or rallying from two down to level against Spain in ’10 before falling to a defeat.
In a way I can understand that. Scotland’s wilderness years have had little to celebrate, so it makes sense to look for moral victories and moments to cherish along the way.
Most concerningly is when glorious failure was used to describe dropped points to Europe’s minnows – Lithuania, Moldova, Georgia, the Faroes etc. I can assure you, there was nothing glorious about those results.
My biggest issue with the concept of glorious failure is that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Attend a Scotland game where the team are leading into the closing stages and you could often feel the anxiety on and off the pitch. Wins were rarely seen out at comfortably. There was usually a late chance for the opponents or often, the concession of a late goal.
Scotland would snatch draws or defeats from the jaws of victory because we had become conditioned to expect it, in the same way that Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson would score late goals in ‘Fergie Time’.
Sir Alex later admitted that when he would stand on the touchline and tap his watch it was done primarily for the benefit of the opposition, rather than the officials – their defenders would think ‘Sir Alex is asking for more stoppage time, they always score in stoppage time’ and before you knew it – United had scored late!
Because they believed it, they made it true.
Now imagine being a Scotland player born and raised in a country where the narrative that surrounds the national team is failure. They lose, they concede late goals, they don’t qualify for tournaments.
How can we succeed when all the talk and expectation around the national team doesn’t appear to offer success as an option?
Of course, I’m not saying that a positive mental attitude would instantly have seen Scotland qualify for more tournaments over the years and I’m sure we will lose games under Steve Clarke and beyond, but with the right attitude we won’t be beaten before a game starts – on the pitch, in the stands or in the media.
One of the founding principles of The Tartan Scarf is to always take a positive approach to the national team. When performances or results are disappointing, we’ll offer criticism only in a constructive way. Some of the best lessons in life come from overcoming the toughest challenges.
For proof of that you only have to look at the Scotland squad and the characters within. How many have overcome serious injuries, being released as kids, worked their way up through the leagues? Their mental strength is clear.
As we opened with, Scotland going to Euro 2020 offers the perfect chance for a culture shift.
The only way this will work is if everyone from management, to players, staff, fans, journalists and pundits buy into it.
When supporting Scotland’s men or women, we never need to define ourselves by failure ever again.
One of my greatest hopes for this new era comes from watching Andy Murray. Every time he would compete in Wimbledon, he would be asked the same questions about the 77 years since a British Man had taken home the trophy. He was forced to carry the emotional baggage of those seven decades of failure that had preceded him yet had nothing to do with him. You can only imagine how much that must have weighed on him. But when he won, that weight was lifted, making it immeasurably easier to win it again.
The 23 years in the international wilderness is over for Scotland’s men. They no longer need to feel that weight of history on their shoulders every time they pull on the dark blue.
While not qualifying for the Euros was a serious disappointment for Scotland’s women, it’s essential that it isn’t accepted and the qualifying process for the next World Cup is approached with the confidence of a team that has qualified for two of the last three Major Finals.