Scotland – The Wilderness Years
Updated: Nov 10
It's November 2020. Steve Clarke and his Scotland side stand 90 minutes away from ending 22 years in the international wilderness for Scotland’s men.
Having edged past Israel at Hampden on penalties in the Playoff Semi-Final, a date with destiny in Belgrade against Serbia awaits.
Steve Clarke is the eighth permanent Scotland manager to attempt to end Scotland’s period in the wilderness, our longest run without major finals qualification in our history, since first going to the FIFA World Cup in 1954.
Scotland went 16 years between qualifying for the World Cups in 1958 and 1974, before going on a remarkable run of six World Cup and two European Championship qualifications in the 25 years between 1974 and 1998.
We’ve come close since, finding ourselves within one or two games of qualification.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane and revisit some heartbreaks of the past.
World Cup 1998
What a stage, what a show. Scotland opened the tournament against Brazil to a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions. Scotland got a 2-1 defeat but deserved more. Two weeks later, Craig Brown’s side would be heading home, mastered 3-0 by Morocco.
We’d be back, right?
Craig Brown remained in charge, looking to make it a hat-trick of major finals qualification, having led the nation to Euro ’96 and World Cup ’98.
In qualifying, Scotland were blown away by a golden generation of Czech Republic players who won all 10 games, scoring 26 in the process. Jan Koller (6), Patrik Berger (5) & Pavel Nedvěd (3) led the way. The Czechs had been beaten finalists at the last Euros in ’96.
Scotland took their home games on tour while Hampden was being re-developed, playing at Tynecastle, Pittodrie, Celtic Park and Ibrox. Despite draws in Lithuania, the Faroes and Estonia, Scotland beat closest rival Bosnia home and away to secure 2nd place in the group and the Playoff place.
The draw for the Playoff was made without seedings, meaning Scotland could have been paired with Israel, Slovenia or the Republic of Ireland. Kevin Keegan’s England were the opponents for a re-match of our Euro ’96 group stage game.
Paul Scholes, the least popular redhead inside Hampden scored twice in the first leg, meaning Scotland would need to overcome a 2-0 deficit in the second leg.
The return? Scotland battered them under the old twin towers of Wembley. At 1-0 up thanks to big Don Hutchison they were on the run. Late in the game, Christian Dailly’s diving header was saved by Seamen and Scotland were done.
Winners on the night, losers in the tie.
World Cup 2002
Craig Brown remained for a really close-run qualification race, with incredibly small margins at play.
While Scotland finished 3rd in the group behind Croatia and Belgium, only three points separated Scotland and top spot.
Dropped points to Belgium (who finished 2nd, 2pts ahead of the Scots) did the damage. At Hampden, a Billy Dodds brace saw Scotland 2-0 ahead and cruising. Wilmots pulled one back in the second half before van Buyten scored at the death for a 2-2 draw.
A loss in Brussels on the penultimate day effectively ended our chances. That result saw stalwarts Paul Lambert, Billy Dodds and Tom Boyd retire from international football.
Scotland went into the final game clutching at straws in the race for the Playoff place, needing a loss for Croatia at home to Belgium paired with a Scotland win over Latvia at Hampden and a seven-goal swing in Scotland’s favour.
In the end, Croatia beat Belgium 1-0 while Scotland, in front of 23 thousand fans, came from behind to win 2-1 over the Latvians. Scotland’s chances of qualifying for consecutive World Cups was over, and with it, Craig Brown’s time as manager.
Searching for our first new manager in 9 years, the Scottish FA broke new ground, appointing a foreign manager, Berti Vogts. His CV was impressive, with 96 caps for West Germany as a player, with whom he lifted the World Cup and European Championship.
As Germany Manager, he had recently won the European Championships in ’96, beating England in the Semi-Final.
In the latter days of Craig Brown’s reign, there was criticism of his loyalty to ageing players who had succeeded for him in the past. With that context, Vogts brought a new broom and dished out debuts to a remarkable 40 players across his tenure. While some paid off (Darren Fletcher and James McFadden) and would contribute to the national team for years to come, many did not.
Vogts couldn’t have wished for a harder start, taking charge for the first time in an away friendly in France, who dished out a 5-0 hiding. This was followed by one win in five more friendlies (against a scratch Hong Kong XI side). Expectation was low.
Despite an ignominious start to qualifying, drawing 2-2 with the Faroe Islands in Toftir, Vogts’ side rallied, beating Iceland home and away and taking a creditable draw at home to Berti’s native Germany. Scotland went into the final qualifier at home to Lithuania needing a win to secure the Playoff spot. Darren Fletcher’s late winner on his home debut sealed the win and the Playoff.
As with Euro 2000, no seeding system was used. Again, Scotland’s luck was out as we avoided Norway, Latvia or Wales and drew the Oranje of the Netherlands, bringing Dick Advocaat back to Scotland in his first job since leaving Rangers.
In the first leg, Berti’s back four of McNamara, Pressley, Wilkie and Naysmith lined up against the star-studded attacking line-up of Davids, Overmars, Kluivert and van Nistelrooy. Despite that, it was the two youngsters given their Scotland debuts by Berti, Darren Fletcher and James McFadden, who provided the moment of highest quality in the game.
A corner kick from McFadden was cleared back to him. He passed to Fletcher. Who backheeled. McFadden! 1-0 Scotland and a lead to take to Amsterdam. All Scotland had to do was avoid defeat and the Tartan Army would be packing their bags and heading for a summer in the Algarve.
In the away leg, the Dutch turned to a little-known 19-year-old PSV midfielder by the name of Wesley Sneijder. He put in the performance of a lifetime, opening the scoring and providing three assists as Scotland were washed away by a bright orange avalanche of goals. 6-0 on the night, 6-1 on aggregate. Move on.
World Cup 2006
While Scotland had come relatively close in each of the qualifying campaigns so far, Berti’s team never got going on the road to the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
After the annihilation in Amsterdam, the Tartan Army’s patience was tested further with a series of poor friendly results including a 4-0 hiding from Wales and a 3-0 Hampden defeat to Hungary in front of 16 thousand supporters. In the eyes of many, Berti was on thin ice kicking off the World Cup 2006 campaign.
He promptly fell through that ice after Scotland opened the group with a 0-0 home draw against Slovenia, a 1-0 Hampden loss to Norway and, most damagingly, a 1-1 away draw with 114th best side in the world Moldova.
With Berti swiftly shown the door, the call went out to Scottish football’s answer to the Godfather, Rangers hero Walter Smith. He arrived, bringing with him a back-room staff including the beloved Tommy Burns and Ally McCoist.
Walter attempted to steer the campaign away from the rocks with a solid defensive shape. Results improved with an excellent Kenny Miller header grabbing a point at home to Italy. Miller also scored a brace in Oslo to keep Scotland on the Norwegians heels for the Playoff spot.
A home defeat to Belarus on the penultimate day ended our hopes of snatching the Playoff berth, but after the unpredictable era of Berti, confidence had started to creep back among the Tartan Army.
Our gradually slipping FIFA World Ranking since 1998 had seen us fall into the fourth pot of seeds for Euro 2008 qualifying. Scotland were drawn in Group B (for ‘Bloody hell’) alongside both World Cup Finalists from 2006, Italy and France and Quarter Finalists Ukraine for good measure.
For the first time since qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, Scotland started with a win, a thumping 6-0 home victory over the Faroe Islands. Scotland followed that with a 2-1 away win in Lithuania (the site of banana skins past and future) before Gary Caldwell slide tackled his way to a famous Hampden win over France. A loss in Ukraine didn’t dampen the spirits among the Tartan Army that something genuinely exciting could be happening.
But then Rangers came calling for Walter and Alex McLeish, another former Ibrox manager took the reins. Without changing too much from Walter’s blueprint our momentum couldn’t be tamed. Georgia, the Faroes and Lithuania were swept aside before heading to Paris for James McFadden to batter one in from 40 yards. Sacre blue. Were we going to do it?
Ukraine were blown away in the Hampden sun before the team travelled to Tbilisi. Having beaten France home and away, Georgia would be no bother, right? They had a 17-year-old debutant in goals for goodness sake! We couldn’t mess it up!
We did. Beaten in a burgundy kit. This one hurt.
On to the final game at home to Italy knowing a win would see us qualify. They were only the reigning World Champions of course! After weeks of feverish anticipation, we went behind after 90 seconds. Barry Ferguson scrambled an equaliser before Panucci won it at the death from a ‘debatable’ free kick.
The toughest qualifying group to date, the best performances and nothing to show for it except broken dreams and tears.
World Cup 2010
After leading Scotland to within one win of Euro 2008, Alex McLeish was lured to the English Premier League, taking over Birmingham City. Scotland turned to former Hearts manager George Burley, asking him to continue the momentum built by Walter Smith and Alex McLeish.
Things didn’t start well, with Scotland melting in the heat of a Macedonian summer, going down 1-0.
This was a campaign remembered for games against Norway. At home, a 0-0 draw featured a memorable miss and led to Kris Boyd’s retirement from international football, while in the return match in Oslo, pairing brothers Stephen and Gary Caldwell at the back resulted in Gary being sent off and Scotland losing 4-0.
Despite all that, a win over the Dutch at Hampden on the final day would have seen Scotland get a Playoff place (a draw would have likely seen us miss out on the Playoff as lowest placed runner-up). Kenny Miller missed a presentable chance, Elia scored up the other end. 1-0 down and that was that.
A couple of ropey friendly results between campaigns saw George Burley replaced by Craig Levein in the dugout. Scotland again had the (questionable) privilege of being one of the first teams drawn against the newly crowned World Champions. It was Italy in Euro 2008 qualifying and all-conquering Spain this time.
La Roja entered this campaign having won Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, en-route to an unprecedented hat-trick of international crowns.
Again, we started slowly with a 0-0 draw in Lithuania (this writer’s first away game), followed by a 97th minute winner over Liechtenstein before the infamous striker-less formation in Prague.
Four days after the debacle in Prague, Scotland showed real character when Spain came to town. Fighting back from 2-0 down, Scotland levelled through an excellent Steven Naismith header and a Gerard Pique own goal. Fernando Llorente scored a late winner.
Scotland rallied in the second half of the group, some wins in the Carling Nations Cup giving momentum enough to run it close.
A 2-2 home draw with the Czechs was a killer. Darren Fletcher on one of his comebacks from injury scored with nine minutes to go to put Scotland ahead before a scandalous penalty was given up the other end for 2-2.
On the final day, Scotland had to match the Czech’s result in Lithuania while we played in Alicante against Spain. Czech Republic look the lead in the opening minutes, while Scotland sank to a 3-1 loss. A few rounds of sangrias required to wash away this campaign.
World Cup 2014
This was a campaign that never made it past the start line. After starting several campaigns with dropped points away from home (Lithuania 2010, Macedonia 2008), the opportunity of a home double header to kick off the campaign was tantalising.
Scotland returned two points, after a 0-0 stalemate with Serbia and a 1-1 draw with Macedonia. This start was compounded in the next international break, an away double header that saw Scotland fall to a 2-1 defeat in Cardiff and a 2-0 loss in Belgium.
After that game in Brussels, two Scotland fans were photographed holding a ‘STRACHAN SOS’ banner. The Scottish FA heeded the message and Levein was promptly replaced by fan favourite Gordon Strachan.
Results did not immediately improve. A 2-1 home loss to Wales in Strachan’s first competitive game in charge was followed by a 2-0 loss in Serbia. Scotland fans had helped clear the pitch of snow in Novi Sad to ensure the game could go ahead. They may have wished they hadn’t bothered.
Two points from the opening six qualifiers meant that Scotland became the first side in Europe to be mathematically eliminated from qualification. A low moment in our time in the wilderness.
Admittedly from a low level, Scotland did start to show green shoots of recovery. Strachan took his Scotland side to Zagreb to play Croatia, then the third ranked side in the world in June 2013. Many feared the worst, but Scotland pulled out a 1-0 win, Robert Snodgrass scoring the winner.
Scotland closed off the group with an expected home loss to Belgium before more wins, away in Macedonia and at home to Croatia. Notable in that run was the debut of Ikechi Anya. Relatively unknown in Scotland, the Glasgow born winger was tormenting full backs. He scored in Macedonia and drew a penalty against Croatia.
A run of four friendly results unbeaten before Euro 2016 qualifying kicked off and expectation was on the rise again.
With the expansion of the European Championship to 24 teams, paired with Scotland’s recent form under Strachan, hope had turned to expectation. The top two teams in each group would qualify automatically, with third placed teams taking a Playoff.
Scotland’s poor results in World Cup 2014 qualifying meant a place in the fourth pool of seeds reflected their standing in world football.
Unbelievably, for the third consecutive European Championship qualifying campaign, Scotland drew the newly minted World Cup Winners. After Italy in Euro ’08 qualifying and Spain in Euro ’12 qualifying, this time it was Germany. Once is unlucky, twice is ridiculous, three times is…
Scotland started the group impressively, although perhaps not getting the results the performances deserved. Drawing 1-1 in Germany, Scotland fell to a 2-1 defeat. Winning 2-1 in Poland, Strachan’s side slipped to a 2-2 draw.
A win over close rivals Ireland at Celtic Park felt significant. In the return game in Dublin, both teams had to settle for a 1-1 draw. At the time it felt like a decent result.
Then followed another trip Georgia. The place our Euro 2008 dreams died. A PTSD warning for the Tartan Army. But this time would be different? The team was flying. Shaun Maloney and Ikechi Anya were tormenting every opponent. We couldn’t mess it up again, right?
We did. Losing 1-0 in Georgia pried open the door to the Playoff place for Ireland again.
In the penultimate game, Scotland hosted Poland while Ireland entertained Germany. So long as Scotland bettered Ireland’s result, Scotland had the Playoff place in the bag with a gimme trip to Faro to play Gibraltar last up. Ireland would surely lose, meaning a draw would be enough.
Despite conceding early, Scotland rallied under the lights at a sold-out Hampden. Matt Ritchie smashed in a rocket before half-time to level before Steven Fletcher delicately clipped a finish into the far corner for a 2-1 lead. Scotland were flying, Hampden was rocking. This was it. At last.
Until the 70th minute, when news spread of Shane Long’s opener in Dublin. The Irish hung on. It didn’t even matter that Lewandowski scrambled home a last-minute equaliser. We closed the group with a meaningless 6-0 victory over Gibraltar.
Euro 2016 would be the biggest football party Europe had seen. We weren’t invited.
World Cup 2018
Despite mixed opinions among the Tartan Army, Gordon Strachan remained as Scotland manager for the road to Russia. This time the draw had paired Scotland against Gareth Southgate’s England side from Pot 1 for the first competitive games between the sides since the Euro 2000 Playoff.
After opening with a Robert Snodgrass hat-trick inspired 5-1 win in Malta, Scotland welcomed familiar foes Lithuania to Hampden. Strachan’s side needed a late James McArthur goal to scramble a 1-1 draw.
Scotland’s path towards the World Cup veered even further off track with back to back 3-0 defeats. First, Slovakia turned over the Scots in Trnava before England turned three shots on target into a 3-0 win at Wembley. Four points from four and Scotland’s chances looked bleak.
They would need a near perfect 2017 to take second place and the Playoff.
They almost got it. In March, Scotland hosted Slovenia. Strachan aimed to harness the momentum of Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic side, starting six of their players including Stuart Armstrong making his debut. After an evening of being frustrated by Jan Oblak in goals, Chris Martin was the hero. The big striker had been shamefully booed on to the park before sending a shot into the far corner to win 1-0.
Scotland ended the 16/17 season by welcoming England. We’ve written at length about that game in the past. Falling behind before going ahead through Leigh Grittiths’ mirror-image free kicks, the Tartan Army were in dreamland. Moments later, Harry Kane made it a nightmare.
Relatively routine wins against Lithuania (3-0) and Mata (2-0) followed before another nerve shredding night at Hampden against Slovakia. This time it was Martin Dubravka with an inspired goalkeeping performance that was foiled at the last by Chris Martin. He pressured Martin Skrtel into turning an Ikechi Anya cross into his own goal.
Scotland had spent the entire year drinking in the last chance saloon. They had to order one more round by beating Slovenia away from home on the final day to get the Playoff.
In Ljubljana, Griffiths gave Scotland the lead with a well taken finish. Strachan’s side were 45 minutes away from capping an incredible year with a Playoff place. The hope wouldn’t last. Scotland conceded two poor goals in twenty second half minutes. A late Robert Snodgrass equaliser wasn’t enough.
After four and a half years and two full qualifying campaigns, Gordon Strachan’s time as Scotland manager had come to an end in the most heart-breaking way possible.
We arrive back at the present day. Scotland’s path to Euro 2020 started back in September 2018, when Alex McLeish’s side kicked off the Nations League C group against Albania. Despite a hiccup along the way, losing 2-1 in Israel, Scotland secured top spot in the group, promotion to League B and a Euro 2020 Playoff with a pair of home wins against Albania and Israel.
Scotland opened Euro 2020 qualifying proper with one of the hardest results in our recent history, going down to a 3-0 loss in Kazakhstan. That loss led to Alex McLeish’s departure as Scotland manager, replaced by Steve Clarke.
Clarke couldn’t have wished for a tougher start. After scrapping to a 2-1 win over Cyprus at Hampden, Clarke ensured four consecutive losses in home and away qualifiers to Belgium and Russia – scoring once and conceding thirteen. The last loss of that run - in Russia - ended Scotland’s hopes of qualifying through the Euro 2020 group, meaning the escape hatch of Euro 2020 Playoff would be needed.
Momentum was built with a hat trick of wins to end the group, starting with a 6-0 demolition of San Marino at Hampden before Cyprus and Kazakhstan were dismissed.
The Playoff was drawn and Scotland were set to welcome Israel to Hampden for a Semi-Final before travelling to Serbia or Norway for a Playoff Final four days later.
Then, Covid-19 intervened. World football was put on ice and Euro 2020 became Euro 2021.
Scotland’s Playoff Semi-Final was pushed back to October. By that time, a new season of Nations League had begun, with Scotland competing in League B.
Scotland started that campaign with a 1-1 home draw with Israel and a 2-1 away win against the Czech Republic. Steve Clarke used those games to debut a new formation, playing with three centre backs. The performances against Israel and the Czech’s didn’t receive rave reviews.
Scotland overcame Israel in the Playoff Semi-Final on a nervous night inside an empty Hampden, scoring every penalty in the shootout to secure progression to November’s Playoff Final with Serbia.
That Semi-Final victory was followed up with back to back 1-0 home wins in the Nations League over Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The Scotland players seemed confident in the system Clarke was asking them to play. The team looked a long way from the one that conceded so freely earlier in Clarke’s reign.
In Lyndon Dykes it looks like Clarke has unearthed a natural successor to Steven Fletcher. A striker who has the physicality to hold up play and the artistry to bring others into the game.
Will it be enough? Who can tell? In the last 22 years, Scotland have come within 90 minutes of qualifying before. A Playoff with England in ’99, a Playoff with the Dutch in ’03, a win or bust final qualifier against Italy in ’07.
Whatever awaits Scotland in Belgrade, it’s not a team of that calibre. Nor should it be an atmosphere to fear, with Covid restrictions limiting attendances at games across Europe.
The Scottish FA adopted the slogan ‘This Time’ for the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers. It wasn’t. But surely, after so long and so many bumps in the road. Ninety minutes from Scottish football immortality.
Is this the time? We’ll have to wait and see…