Steve Clarke’s Scotland made international football history as they finally ended a 22 year wait of qualifying for an international tournament, after beating Serbia on penalties.
The year of 1998 saw the release of James Cameron’s Titanic which dominated the Oscars, the search engine Google was founded, Bill Clinton became the second president in history to be impeached (and first to be associated with the name Lewinsky), the monumental Good Friday agreement was signed in Northern Ireland and Harrison Ford was named People’s sexiest man alive. The year also saw Scotland go to the French World Cup, going up against a great Brazil team, alongside Morocco and Norway. Scotland would eventually be knocked out the competition, after finishing last in the group with one point and scoring two goals. This would be our last taste of an international competition for over two decades. After 22 miserable years, five Prime Ministers and four Presidents (nearly five), an Austrian skydiving from space and Jordan Henderson lifting a Champions League trophy (as an actual participating player), a David Marshall penalty save was enough to end the agony and send Scotland to their first international tournament of the 21st Century.
Scotland came off the back of a difficult and admittedly unconvincing win in the semi finals of the qualification, against a surprisingly tough Israel side who took Scotland all the way to penalties, but were eventually defeated by a Kenny McLean penalty in a shootout.
Serbia unexpectedly managed to overturn an impressive Norwegian side, on Scandinavian soil, led by golden boy Erling Håland 2-1 in extra time. This result had meant that the Serbians were certainly not a team to be overlooked, with everybody expecting a particularly challenging fixture in the city of Belgrade. Especially with the likes of Lazio’s Sergej Milinković-Savić and experienced Premier League target man Aleksandar Mitrović, showing that Steve Clarke’s men would need to be at their best to have any chance of qualifying.
Scotland in front of an empty stand started the game very strongly and took a firm tartan grip of the game, for 89 minutes. A strong defence linked up nicely with a spectacular midfield performance from McGinn, McGregor and Jack. Adding to that, an inspirational performance from former Livingston striker Lyndon Dykes, who’s work rate was second to none on the night. Seven minutes after the restart, Celtic’s representatives of Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie created a chance which ended with a glorious finish from Christie, bringing Scotland that one historic step closer.
Scotland were unfortunate not to double their lead, but as the minutes went by the Serbians began to truly grow into the game, calling upon David Marshall numerous times to keep the nation in front. Clarke in an effort to contain the lead, brought on the big men of McBurnie, Paterson and McClean. Fingers could be pointed after the game if Scotland had lost as these substitutes resulted in the sacrifice of Christie, McGinn and Dykes, who were arguably the three best players on the night. With a minute to go, Scotland did a Scotland, falling asleep whilst defending a corner and left a Real Madrid striker in Luka Jovic with a free header, bringing Serbia back into the game.
The late equaliser was a real kick in the teeth for Scotland, with the 22 years of misery creeping back in and everyone once again expecting the worst. Leigh Griffiths, who had created magic in a Scotland shirt before, was unable to do anything before the end of 90 minutes, bringing the two sides to extra time.
Scotland were up against it the whole of extra time, Serbia maliciously attempting to gain an advantage in the remaining minutes. But a central defence of Gallagher, McTominay and Tierney had enough in them to force a penalty shootout to decide Scotland’s fate.
In my nearly twenty years on this planet, I had never felt nerves like this. Every second felt like an hour whilst I waited for Griffiths to step up to take Scotland’s first penalty. My heart turned inside out as it looked like the Serbian number one had got enough on Griffith’s shot to keep it out, but let it slip through in the last second. Serbia converted their next three penalties, Marshall coming so close on the second, and with McGregor, McTominay, McBurnie and McLean all following suit with solid conversions under such great pressure. And as sudden death continued, Aleksandar Mitrović became a Scotland legend as his penalty was denied by the heroics of Marshall, who at first thought he had come off his line too early (which would have been an absolute catastrophe wouldn’t it?), finally sending Scotland to a tournament. I still cannot believe I’m able to say that.
This is the first time in my life, alongside so many others that will be able to see our nation in a tournament. The torment from certain neighbouring countries can be put on hold (for now at least) as the whole nation who are so usually divided, can unite in being absolutely steaming on a school night.
I am so proud. We are all so proud. Euro’s here we come.