IN ONE respect, Stewart Regan knows it will be different this time. Nice in Nice, after it was bruising in Brussels two years ago.
The SFA chief executive can sit back in Palais des Congres Acropolis convention centre in the French Riviera this morning and simply wait to discover Scotland’s fate in the Euro 2016 qualifying draw, the first of its kind for a major international football tournament presented to the competing nations as a fait accompli. “The use of a computer will take out the grunt and the ‘what if’ discussions, and the blame game,” he said.
All a far cry from the “bun fight” that inevitably ensued from previous procedure of fixture meetings, with their heated discussions and horse trading. In the Belgian capital with then national coach Craig Levein in November 2011 to decide the dates in a World Cup qualifying group that pitted Scotland with Croatia, Belgium, Wales, Serbia and Macedonia, there were particular complications for Regan and Scotland that almost derailed the process.
“There was a lot of exasperation,” Regan recalls. “There were a few issues going into the meeting. One of them being the fact we had not been previously allowed to play football on a Friday night in Scotland. I went in thinking ‘how are we going to handle this? We are going to find it really difficult’. I walked out at one point and phoned Andy Bates and Campbell Corrigan of Strathclyde Police and said: ‘You need to help us here. We are in a position where we have got to try and get something that gives Scotland an opportunity.’ To be fair to the police, they were brilliant. They said ‘we will back you with a couple of low-risk matches. As long as you tell us who it is that you think you might play’ and that was how we ended up with Belgium and Wales. They backed us and we got Friday night football. For the first part of the meeting I was saying ‘no, we can’t do this’ or ‘no, we can’t do that’ and the other countries were looking at Scotland and saying ‘who are you to come into this room calling all the shots’. At that point [the then Croatia coach] Slaven Bilic said the Scots are worse than the Serbs. With a smile on his face, fortunately.”
Regan hopes the differences between his first campaign at the head of the SFA and his second do not begin and end with the manner in which dates are assigned to games. It was his predecessors that pushed for the expansion of the European Championship finals to be expanded from 16 to 24 teams for one purely selfish reason – it gives unremarkable international teams such as this one the best possible opportunity to mix it with the elite in major finals. Never mind that the quality will be seriously diluted by having the top two teams from each of the nine groups go forward automatically, along with the best-perfoming third side, while the other eight third-placed teams play-off for the remaining four berths.
“We are very fortunate to be part of a tournament where there is an almost one-in-two chance of qualifying,” said Regan. “If you look back over the previous Euro campaigns, if 24 teams qualified I think we would have got through, not every time, but twice in the last four campaigns [in 2000 and 2004, through finishing second in the group, while in 2008 and 2012 they finished in the now play-off-earning third place]. So you can’t be complacent but this presents us with a much better chance than we have ever had before, and that’s got to be a good thing.”
Yet, in view of the fact that Scotland will be a pot-four team, essentially they are seeded not to qualify. “But Scotland have risen up the rankings under Gordon [Strachan],” says Regan. “I looked at last FIFA ranking list and we were ranked 21st in Europe and 34th in the world. Now, if we are ranked 21st in Europe and 24 qualify, you could say Gordon’s performances have actually out-performed the pots and got us in a position where we’ve got a fighting chance.
“It’s a bit like what Belgium have done and risen up the rankings over the last few years and are now seen as one of the top teams. But what we will focus on going into this campaign is that we have an almost one-in-two chance of qualifying for our first tournament in 16 years.
“There are two schools of thought. If you’re a small country it’s great news as there is almost a one-in-two chance of qualifying. If you’re a large country there is a feeling that actually you have diluted the value of the finals event. Within the football fraternity there is a view, from a television rights point of view, that we have got to see how this goes because having a finals event with a one-in-two chance of qualification is not exactly compelling viewing for the broadcasters. Is it actually going to generate as much cash as you might otherwise have got?”
In order that broadcasting income is maximised, Scotland could end up playing games on Sunday nights at 5pm, or on Thursday and Mondays as part of UEFA’s “week of football” concept. The term is merely a means of putting a sheen on the European governing body’s attempts to ensure a broadcasting bonanza. Playing on Thursday and Sunday, Friday and Monday or Saturday and Tuesday on double header weeks has “its pluses and minuses”, Regan admits, but he makes one key point. “We took a pragmatic view, in that we’re not getting anything which is any different to the other 53 associations,” he said. “We’re not being disadvantaged, we’re not going to be asked to play matches that no one else is going to be asked to play at times that no one else will.”
In terms of the monetary rewards closer to home, a sum of around £10 million will be on the line for Scotland as they seek to bring to an end a run of eight qualification failures. “We know that Scottish football is short of money right now and it would be great to be able to bring money in that the game could benefit from. Ultimately our job is to develop more elite players for Scottish football so it would allow us to do more of the work we have been through performance schools and the focus on academies.
“When you go down into the grassroots you also ask how we get more kids interested in the game. If we made it you’d be asking the question a bit like the Olympics did and the Commonwealth games did. What would be the legacy of Scotland qualifying for a major tournament? That would be a piece of work in its own right. We’d need to create a legacy plan and would want more Scottish kids playing football on a regular basis as a result of seeing us in a European finals.”
Not least because the last batch of kids that could have been inspired to play the game through watching Scotland in a major finals may well have kids of their own.
The 53 competing nations will be divided into eight groups of six teams, and one group of five teams. The top two from each group will automatically qualify along with the best third-placed team, with the eight other sides finishing third going forward to play-offs to decide the further four teams that will join hosts France to make up the new, enlarged, 24-team finals.
The draw will start at 11am this morning and, being made by computer for the first time, a full fixture list is expected to be published by UEFA by 3.30pm this afternoon. Of the entrants Scotland could be drawn against, they have never faced Slovakia, Albania, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Andorra or newcomers Gibraltar at international level before. The fact Scotland are a pot-four team and England are in pot one means the ancient adversaries could be drawn in the same group. Moreover, with the first game scheduled to take place on 7/8/9 September, there is the remote possibility that the two could meet, in Glasgow, only days before Scotland’s independence referendum takes place.
Best possible draw for Scotland
Bosnia, Hungary, Austria, Cyprus, Gibraltar
Worst possible draw for Scotland
Spain, Belgium, Serbia, Iceland, Kazakhstan