Ahead of Scotland’s all-important Group F clash with Slovakia at Hampden, James Robinson breaks down the Tartan Army’s 19 years of hurt, and asks whether Gordon Strachan can put an end to it.
It was June 10 1998, and the opening game of the World Cup which saw Brazil face Scotland. The reigning-champions and eventual-finalists were a goal up through César Sampaio’s 4th minute header, and all seemed to be going to plan for the men in green and yellow. That was until Scotland were awarded an unlikely penalty in the 38th minute. Up stepped John Collins, and Scotland fans prayed. Surely, the world thought, the midfielder from Everton couldn’t equalise against a generation-defining team; one that boasted the likes of Ronaldo (the original), Rivaldo, Cafu, Dunga, and Roberto Carlos?
Taffarel dived to his right, almost getting a hand to it, but he couldn’t stop Collins from sending the Tartan Army into raptures. The Stade de France rocked. A euphoric moment for the fans, and a landmark one in Scottish football history.
But as much as it can still induce shivers, Collins’ equaliser is a memory that has for too long lived in the minds of Scotland’s passionate supporters. It was 19 years ago. The Tartan Army has waited long enough for a repeat.
Too Little, Too Late
During Scotland’s 19 year hiatus from the most eagerly anticipated sporting event in the world, the team has repeatedly fallen short of expectations. Irrespective of the line-up, or indeed the manager, Scotland have not merely crashed out of every qualifying stage, but they have typically done so in truly agonising fashion.
A look back through Scotland’s recent qualifying history certainly makes for painful reading. Frequently a case of “too little too late”, the team has developed a habit of committing costly errors early in their campaigns, only to leave themselves with a mammoth challenge down the stretch. Take 2006 for example: early, and frankly inexcusable, draws against Moldova and Slovenia left Scotland with their backs firmly against the wall. The draw against eventual world champions, Italy, and the win away at Norway were impressive — and should have been enough — but Scotland’s loss at home to Belarus sealed the Tartan Army’s fate.
As heartbreaking as 2006 might have been, it was far from a one-off. Four years later, a similar story played-out as Scotland’s otherwise respectable campaign was undermined from the beginning by their early loss to Macedonia. After racking up three wins — one more than second-place Norway — the team missed out on the playoff spot by a single point. It was a case-study in how early futility can come back to sabotage a team making a strong finish. Add it to the growing list.
These 19 years have been made longer by the fact that Scotland have also failed to qualify for the Euros. The closest they came was in 2008 when James Mcfadden’s wonder goal against France sent Scotland top of the group. But the euphoria was short-lived. Scotland gallantly finished 3rd behind Italy and France.
Death by Rankings
There are clearly a huge number of factors that can explain why Scotland haven’t made it to a major tournament in almost two decades. It could, of course, be explained by the lack of breakthrough players at the youth level, leading to a dearth of Scottish talent in the Premier League. But it could also be due to factors such as the FIFA world rankings — a system that has come under much scrutiny and flack since for the one-dimensional it rewards point to teams who win ‘competitive’ matches. It has thankfully been somewhat revised and refreshed, more so from 2006. However, teams are still unscrupulously able to manipulate the points they achieve through certain methods that need addressing sooner rather than later. This has clearly impacted the way relative ‘minnows’ are drawn against their more ‘glamourous’ counterparts. Teams like Scotland have struggled to get out of the qualifying groups, leaving them forced to fight for the scraps.
Brown vs Strachan
If Gordon Strachan is to lead Scotland to the 2018 World Cup, he will be the first manager to oversee a successful qualification campaign since Craig Brown.
Brown is the longest serving Scotland manager in history. After guiding the Tartan Army to Euro 96 and France 98, he will forever be fondly remembered by Scotland fans as a legend of the game. However, the case can be made that he was blessed with the last truly great Scotland squad: Hendry, Goram, McAllister, Burley, Boyd, Collins, Durie etc. It’s also worth keeping in mind that for both tournaments Scotland were drawn groups boasting only Russia and Austria. While certainly not easy, Brown was granted paths to qualification far more more straightforward than any faced by Walter Smith, Alec McLeish, or Craig Levein.
Strachan on the other hand has endured a rocky tenure as Scotland manager, and after it looked like another qualification campaign was going up in smoke, he initially fell out of favour with the fans. But what Strachan has always done brilliantly is resisting the pressure. He gets his team to play simple football without tactical over-complication.
Brown and Strachan by the Numbers
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The game against Slovenia on 26th March 2017 really was make or break for Strachan. Another bad result would have most certainly cost him his job. However, Chris Martin’s 88th minute goal was enough to get them back into contention in the group. Then an immensely important point against England followed – which really should have really been 3. This sparked real belief into a team that knew they had England’s number.
All in all, it’s difficult to deny that Strachan has done a remarkable job in turning things around for Scotland. There is hope once again.
Can Scotland go the Distance?
There’s a good feeling about Scotland lately, and there is a genuine belief that they can achieve that all important play-off place. Slovakia are no pushovers and though they may not be strong in all areas of the pitch, they have quality where it counts. The star man for the Slovaks is Marek Hamsik, who can be devastating when given time on the ball. Nullifying him will be the prime objective for the midfield. With Scott Brown injured, Thursday may not be such an enjoyable night for whoever is assigned that all-important role.
The embarrassing 3 – 0 drubbing in their last meeting was not representative of how Scotland played that night. They penetrated the Slovakia backline easily, and if chances had been taken earlier on the score-line could easily have been reversed. These two teams are well matched and hard to separate.
Stuart Armstrong will be another huge miss for the Scotland midfield. He had just started to establish himself with some impressive performances. But the star man for me is Kieran Tierney. The versatile Celtic left back looks settled at this level and at such a young age. Along with Robertson on the opposite flank, he will be Scotland’s biggest outlet and a real danger that Slovakia will be forced to deal with.
Former Slovakia and Celtic creative midfielder, Ľubomír Moravčík said in an interview with BBC Sport, “The most likely result for me is a draw…”. Unfortunately, even as an optimistic Scotland fan, I must agree that it will probably end in frustration – having to wait another four years to qualify. Slovakia, playing on the counter, could easily nick the first goal, although Scotland should be able equalise. The question is whether they will have enough time to get the crucial three points.
Predicting the Slovenia game is futile, as it very much depends on what happens tonight Hampden — an encounter that could prove to be the most important Scotland game in a generation.
The verdict: 1-1 and another agonising evening at Hampden.