After 23 years in the wilderness of international football, Scotland are back in a major tournament and have more history to make at Euro 2020 as Steve Clarke’s men aim to take their country beyond the group stage for the first time ever.
In charismatic fashion, the Scots took the long and difficult road to come back home to Hampden for their opening game against the Czech Republic on June 14.
Penalties were needed to see off Israel and Serbia after Alex McLeish’s team earned a crack at qualifying via the play-offs thanks to their performances in the Nations League.
McLeish was gone by the time the play-offs had come around, dismissed after an embarrassing 3-0 defeat in Kazakhstan in March 2019 in their first game of the qualifying campaign proper — the latest nadir in Scotland’s decline since the days where they were regulars in major tournaments.
Even in those days, former greats such as Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Denis Law could not drag the dark blues past the group stage.
However, a new more forgiving format that eliminates just eight of the 24 nations from the group stage offers a gentler path into the knockout phase.
Whether Clarke can succeed where others have stumbled will depend largely on the opening game against the Czechs with more daunting tasks against old enemies England at Wembley and World Cup finalists Croatia to come.
But there is a quiet confidence with a core of key players performing consistently to a high level in the English Premier League.
Not making up the numbers
Captain Andy Robertson played a pivotal role in Liverpool’s Premier League and Champions League title victories in recent years, while Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney, Manchester United midfielder Scott McTominay and Aston Villa’s John McGinn have also had outstanding seasons.
“There is no point in going if we are just going there to make up the numbers,” said Clarke as he announced his squad of 26.
“When the boys won the match in Serbia, all the boys became heroes overnight. If we can get out of the group stages they can become legends, so why not aim for that?”
Clarke has had to be creative to transform Scotland from the side torn apart in Kazakhstan to one that went on a nine-game unbeaten run that culminated in a famous night in Belgrade in November, when qualification was secured.
Tierney, a left-back, has been used on the left side of a back three to get he and Robertson into the same side and hide a lack of outstanding centre-backs.
Up front, Southampton’s Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes of QPR have been naturalised via their Scottish heritage to make up for a dearth of genuine goal-scoring strikers.
But they are blessed for options in midfield with Chelsea’s Billy Gilmour behind McTominay, McGinn, Southampton’s Stuart Armstrong and Celtic duo Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie in the pecking order.
Scottish government coronavirus restrictions have meant Hampden has not hosted a crowd since November 2019, but the doors will be opened for 12,000 lucky ticket holders for the games against the Czech Republic and Croatia.
“It will be great to have the Tartan Army here,” added Clarke. “Not in full numbers, but in enough numbers, and I’m sure they will be loud enough.”
In between their two games at Hampden, Scotland travel to London hoping to create shockwaves on their return to the big time against England.
Over two decades of pain would be washed away in one night for the Tartan Army if the Three Lions were humbled on home soil.
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