With their next fixture looming against Spain, Steve Clarke’s men have shown some top performances in qualifying for the 2024 European Championships that have restored faith and excitement among many Scots.
I, like many of my fellow Scots I’m sure, despaired when I first saw Scotland’s qualifying group for Euro 2024. Okay, there will always be the chance of a superior heavyweight that will breeze past the group, so I wasn’t mulling over Spain. But as for the other teams drawn with whom we were to battle for the second qualifying spot, we seemed to be facing a tough proposition.
Cyprus was supposedly our ‘easy’ team, a couple of games where six points would be a given. Not an ideal scenario when other possible draws were the likes of Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands whose teams of largely semi-professionals would have undoubtedly been less threatening opponents.
Then there were our main rivals for qualification – Norway. They were spearheaded by the likes of Erling Haaland, who has already proved his world class credentials in his first season at Manchester City, and Martin Ødegaard, the young playmaker establishing himself to be the creative heart of an exciting Arsenal side. And for the final side, who else but Georgia, who defeated us in our 2015 campaign, to remind us of our perpetual woes in qualifying.
The campaign started off with the easiest game of the group, at least on paper – Cyprus at home. Fortunately, the team matched its expectations as we comfortably secured a victory to get the ball rolling. Although it did take a couple of late goals from McTominay to calm the nerves of a one-nil lead late into the game, you really couldn’t complain, it was a win and the best start that could be asked for.
Next up was a bit more complicated. We were still at Hampden, but this time versus three-time Euros winners and 2010 World Cup champions Spain. Maybe I was being too pessimistic, but these are the games that we can afford to lose. Just play defensively to maintain the goal difference if it came down to it knowing we had Norway and Georgia down the line.
I didn’t get to watch this game; I was too busy watching our university’s production of Hamlet. And as many partners of otherwise more artistic people, I checked the score during the intermission. Two-nil? I could hardly believe it. Another McTominay brace no less. There was still some time left to go though and I was dreading seeing a three-two scoreline at the end of the show. But the boys held on and delivered a sensational result against a Spain side led by their captain Rodri, who after the game, bitterly slammed the Scotland teams’ tactics. I heard afterwards though that it was not even a fluke, we had practically played them off of the park. It was easy to start believing that we meant serious business this time round.
Norway and Georgia are still real proving grounds, however. You need to win these to make it through. Starting in Oslo, we went a goal down when Haaland dropped to the floor at the mere suggestion of contact and convincingly converted the resulting penalty. Hope for a result seemed lost until late in the game when Dykes pounced on an error by the Norwegian defence to make it level. Shortly afterwards, a beautifully worked team goal finished off by McLean put us up two-one, and we were in dreamland. It could be suggested we were a bit lucky there, but manager Steve Clarke’s tactical changes for the last 10 minutes of the game can easily be given credit for sparking the win.
A few days later, following the delayed kick-off due to the Glasgow rain, we gave Georgia a night to forget which was exemplified by their young talisman Kvaratskhelia blasting a penalty over the bar in injury time.
The next and most recent game, the away bout against Cyprus, came with a strange feeling. For a change, I was actually expecting us to comfortably win the game. After all, this side had come into its own, and the players were working impressively together. But this didn’t feel normal. For contrast, I remember when it took a Robert Snodgrass dive for a penalty to break the deadlock against a motivated Malta side just seven years ago. This made me realise how far this team has come in recent years, and I just can’t wait to see how far they can go. We ended up winning the game comfortably.
This recent success has no doubt made the prospect of playing for the Scotland team a bit more attractive amongst those with the necessary ancestry. However, when it comes to potential call-ups Elliot Anderson and Harvey Barnes, I am not keen.
Anderson seems to have had trouble committing his future to our country, still holding out for a call from Southgate. In this case, I say we should close the door. International football often relies on motivated players going that extra mile to make up for the lack of playing time they get together compared to club football. If he’s only playing for Scotland if he doesn’t get an England cap in the next few years, we can’t rely on him putting 100% of his heart in.
As for Barnes, he has the date of his England team debut tattooed onto his arm. If that doesn’t automatically disqualify somebody from the Scotland team, I don’t know what does.
The next game is Spain away. I’m being realistic about this one. As long as the lads put in a shift, I’m happy. The important ones left are in Georgia and then, finally, Norway at Hampden. I’m hoping it doesn’t come down to that final game which it realistically could. Either way though, I am absolutely hopeful for the future. I am not going to start claiming we’re going to go on to win the whole thing, but I will say that for the first time in a while, I am excited for the next time Scotland plays.