The Euro Debrief
After twenty-three years of waiting for a Scotland men’s team to make it to a Major Finals, it was over after eight days.
But was it worth it? Did we enjoy it and what does it mean for the future?
I’ve tried to take time to reflect on the Euros experience, to let the emotion drain away so I can look back with a calm mind.
For anyone who has read anything on The Tartan Scarf, you’ll know our approach is always to find the positives, look for growth and firmly believe that tomorrow will be better than today.
That doesn’t mean that I can’t or won’t be critical where merited.
Coming into Euro 2020, with two games at Hampden including a first against a Czech side we’d beaten in that venue less than a year ago and third placed teams making the knockouts – the target we all had for this Scotland side was to reach the knockout stage of a Major Finals for the first time in our history.
For some, that was the expectation.
That didn’t happen and, by that metric, we failed.
As ever, the full picture isn’t as black and white as that and when you dig deeper you can find plenty to be positive and optimistic about.
Let’s start by going back to the beginning of June and the pre-tournament warm-up fixtures.
Scotland had just taken a very creditable draw against the Netherlands having led twice. Jack Hendry and Kevin Nisbet had notched their first Scotland goals and despite leaving several likely starters behind after John Fleck’s Covid diagnosis, Scotland had impressed with their defensive structure.
Four days later and Luxembourg were beaten 1-0 courtesy of Che Adams’ second Scotland goal, set up nicely by Lyndon Dykes in what looked like a blossoming partnership. Scotland piled on the chances throughout the game but couldn’t convert them (we’ll call that foreshadowing for later), while a second half cameo from young Billy Gilmour caught the eye (more foreshadowing).
The team was now unbeaten in five and, despite the slight concerns at not holding the lead against the Netherlands or burying 10-man Luxembourg by more goals, confidence was there. Our 5-3-2 system was well drilled, having been used since September 2020.
How we felt
What was particularly pleasing at that time was the flickers of confidence among the Tartan Army and the nation as a whole. Yes, there were the “we’re going to win the Euros” tweets with tongue firmly in cheek, but fans could see what was being built. We had brought together a very exciting group of players and the confidence we were starting to feel earned.
This groundswell of support behind the team was incredible to see. More Scotland kits were being seen on high streets than ever before and The LaFontaines had released a song so catchy, even my football agnostic wife had to admit was a banger.
Speaking of music – this one from Scott McGill deserved a lot of love too!
Most excitingly and bringing some real glamour to the party, were Scotland’s big brands.
The team at Studio Something (the production company behind the phenomenal View from the Terrace on BBC Scotland) were behind a lot of what we loved.
Their Tennents advert – ‘Five Million Reasons’ – really captured the mood of a nation rising again behind their men.
I want you to look back to how you felt during that period. Wasn’t it brilliant? Whatever happened next, we should all have been pledging to ourselves to chase that feeling, wherever it takes us.
A Reality Czech
I’m not going to drag through each match in excruciating detail. Rather, I’ll look to highlight some of my biggest takeaways from each game. Pre-match, viewers on BBC One were treated to this incredible scene-setting video from our friends at Studio Something - a viking funeral of Scotland's Glorious Failure era soundtracked by Biffy Clyro. I'm incredibly grateful that they used my voiceover through the second half of this video.
Inside Hampden Park, finding out that Kieran Tierney hadn’t travelled was devastating news. Having plundered three assists from LCB v the Faroe Islands in March, a position where he’s able to showcase his driving runs from deep and his range of passing between the lines – he’s truly irreplaceable for us.
Liam Cooper in an able defender but doesn’t have the same skillset going forward as Tierney.
On the starting 11, having worked on the partnership between Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes – seeing Dykes lead the line alone was mystifying.
Whatever the plan was in the first half was - playing long balls to Dykes for McGinn, Armstrong and Christie to run onto - it didn’t work.
Those three midfielder’s attacking instincts often left Scotland’s midfield stretched, with Scott McTominay often the only passing option out of defence. This led to more responsibility being placed on Stephen O’Donnell’s shoulders to build possession. To be charitable, it was a role he struggled with. An early mis-control into touch & accidentally dispossessing Ryan Christie set the tone for his day.
Coming out for the second half, the change had been made with Che Adams replacing Christie. By this stage we were already chasing the game. Being unable to clear the ball towards the end of the first half had led to cross after cross into our box. Eventually, the connection was made and Patrik Schik had headed the Czechs ahead.
Just when it looked like we were building momentum at the start of the second half, Jack Hendry hitting the bar and the Czech keeper clawing the ball off his own line with Dykes waiting to tap-in, the nightmare scenario happened. Schik scored from the half-way line in a goal that will haunt Scotland like Gascoigne’s in ’96.
Scotland had several more chances – out-shooting the Czechs 19 to 10 – but couldn’t find a way through.
Leaving that game, I felt every combination of deflated, annoyed and plain confused. Back in October Scotland had beaten the Czechs at Hampden 1-0, scoring with our only shot on target. This time, Scotland had created far more chances but just couldn’t convert. A harsh lesson of the standards required at this level.
The Wembley Warriors
Ahead of the game against Wembley, I felt nothing but anxiety. Knowing that a loss against the Auld Enemy would eliminate us was the nightmare scenario for all Scotland fans.
This intro from STV’s coverage starring James McAvoy didn’t help the pre-match nerves.
Ahead of kick off, there were changes. Mercifully, Kieran Tierney returned at LCB. Scott McTominay dropped back to RCB (in my opinion, his best position for Scotland).
Callum McGregor replaced Stuart Armstrong with Che Adams lining up alongside Lyndon Dykes up top, Ryan Christie missing out. In the boldest move, Billy Gilmour came in for his competitive debut from the start.
On the night, whatever Scotland lacked at Hampden, they delivered at Wembley. They held possession very well, Billy Gilmour shone– his technique and range of passing helped Scotland retain and build.
Scotland held England (who if you didn’t know went to the Final) to one shot on target from outside the box and a John Stones header against the post from a corner.
Up the other end, Stephen O’Donnell almost secured the greatest redemption arc by scoring but was denied by Pickford. In the second half, Reece James had to clear off the line from Lyndon Dykes.
Little to CRO about
Returning to Hampden, results elsewhere had confirmed the stakes. Win and we were in the Last 16 as one of the best third placed teams.
As with the Czech game, team news brought terrible news. Scotland were missing Billy Gilmour, having tested positive for Covid-19 after the game at Wembley. Teams make their own luck, but if there was anything on offer, we didn’t get it. Missing Tierney against the Czechs and Gilmour against Croatia was terrible fortune.
Scotland started well but (in the story of our tournament) didn’t result in the opening goal. Croatia, with all their big tournament nous, showed us how it’s done. Nikola Vlasic converting Peresic’s knockdown inside the box.
Then came more bad luck. Grant Hanley, who had been excellent all tournament, was forced off with an injury, replaced by Scott McKenna.
Just when all looked lost, we finally had our moment. Another cross by Andy Robertson – who created more chances than most in the tournament – wasn’t dealt with. Falling to Callum McGregor outside the box, the Celtic man fired the ball into the bottom left on the half volley. Hampden erupted. The nation erupted. The fanzone in Glasgow Green erupted.
Half-time 1-1. Forty-five minutes away from reaching the knockouts for the first time in our history.
After McGinn missed an excellent chance to put Scotland ahead, Croatia showed their class. First, Luke Modric scored another Goal of the Tournament contender against us, before Perisic concluded business.
Three one and we were done.
As we said at the beginning of this article, our ambition was to make the knockouts and we failed.
However, after lots of reflection I feel there was plenty to be positive about going forward.
Another element giving me confidence for the future is the way Scotland competed in every game. As mentioned before, Scotland created more than enough chances in each game to take draws or wins. Each match was on a knife-edge.
At no point were Scotland truly outclassed.
A bit more clinical finishing (or fewer blocked shots) and the reflections on Scotland’s Euros could be completely different.
Disappointed but not despondent is how I’d summarise my feelings on the Euros.
Everyone’s First Time
Euro 2020 was a harsh lesson for Scotland. We were left with no illusions of the standards we need to reach to be successful. Our opponents took their chances and we didn’t.
Across the tournament, Scotland had 42 shots on goal. Taking that many shots to create one goal isn’t sustainable at this level.
That tournament nous was obvious in our opponents. Against the Czech Republic, you could see the Scotland players trying to calm each other down, reluctant to ride the emotion of the moment. The Czech’s coped far better with the occasion. Croatia did too.
When the pressure was highest in the second half, they had the experience to see out the win.
You can’t underestimate that this was the players, manager and staff’s first major finals.
While they had all competed at the highest levels in football, nothing can compare with the unique pressures of representing your country at their first Major Finals in over two decades.
When the next men’s Major Finals comes, you’d imagine most of this squad will be there and they’ll be better for the experience gained this summer.
A squad for the future
Speaking of the squad, look at the age profile of this selection of key players in this squad. Then look at their age progressing through the World Cup in 2022 and the European Championship in 2024.
This is a spine of a squad that can stay together for the next two or more Major Finals. This bodes really well for our future. A lack of consistency in squad selection has been an Achilles’ heel for Scotland squads this century.
It's also great to see so many of these players challenging themselves at the highest levels every week. Since the Euros finished, Billy Gilmour has joined Norwich on loan for the season, a brilliant opportunity to play EPL football for a progressive side right under Chelsea's noses.
Having a group of players who can grow together, learn together and earn dozens of caps together can only be a good thing.
2021 is the busiest year for Scotland’s men in a long time, with fifteen games. The pace will remain relentless should Scotland make it to the World Cup Playoffs. Scotland return to the path to Qatar at the beginning of September with a tough game in Copenhagen against Denmark.
Scotland return to World Cup qualifying second in the group and should be targeting the Playoffs.
The Nations League will follow in June 2022 with Scotland remaining in League B. A good showing there should guarantee a Playoff place for Euro 2024, the path we took to Euro 2020.
By then, if this Scotland side has continued on an upward trajectory, an automatic qualifying spot should be the target for Euro 2024 in Germany.
What it meant to me
Many of you will have seen this Twitter thread I posted the night before we played the Czech Republic. It was about my friend who I travelled around Europe with following the Scotland team.
We dreamed of seeing Scotland at a Major Finals. We were heartbroken when Gordon Strachan’s side missed out on Euro 2016.
In 2018 we lost him to cancer. Whatever happened on the pitch, I’ll never forget the experience of watching Scotland at a Major Finals and I’ll never take it for granted how lucky I was to be there.
Many of our friends, family and loved ones were not so lucky.
Scotland will be back and it won’t be 23 years before it happens. See you in September for the return of the World Cup Qualifiers.