WHEN he was only 11 years old and in Primary Seven, James McArthur sat in a cinema in the Parkhead area of Glasgow watching Scotland play Brazil in the first match of the 1998 World Cup.
Fast forward to last Friday night and McArthur, now a valuable member of the Scotland squad, is sitting watching another football match, this time in the company of his international colleagues in a plush Renfrewshire hotel.
The Scotland players gathered to watch the Croatia v Belgium game that saw the visitors qualify for Brazil 2014. It helped intensify the sense of frustration at again missing out on a major finals. Although they host Croatia tomorrow, Scotland have long been out of the running, with the absence from the World Cup stage extended to at least 18 years.
For McArthur, a wide-eyed young boy at the time, the last World Cup in which Scotland competed must seem like ancient history. “That was my first big memory of watching Scotland,” McArthur reflected, with reference to the 2-1 defeat to Brazil in the opening match of the World Cup finals. “I remember at the time how excited everyone was, how it captured the imagination of everyone in Scotland.
“We’ve had players over the past 15 years who have not experienced that feeling and that’s a big thing for us as players.
“You want to go to World Cup finals, you want to get to European Championships. We’re all striving to go in the same direction and get there.”
Tomorrow’s clash with Croatia at least offers Gordon Strachan’s side the chance to go out on a high after an arduous and, at times traumatic, campaign, but while another victory over Croatia would be gladdening, it will still see the final whistle blow on another failed mission.
Hopes were high last year, when Scotland embarked on a latest qualifying campaign. McArthur himself has only featured in five of the nine qualifying matches to date, but the Wigan Athletic midfielder was present in June when Scotland became only the second visiting side in 20 years to emerge with three points from a competitive fixture in Zagreb. On Friday night Belgium became the third with a 2-1 victory. While Scotland remain in danger of finishing in last place, McArthur is only looking upwards. He contends that a second win over Croatia, currently ranked in the top ten countries in the world, will put Scotland “back on the map” and offer further hope ahead of next year’s Euro 2016 qualifiers, when Scotland will engage with their latest attempt to secure qualification.
“We are growing in confidence and building some momentum,” he said. “Hopefully we will get a nice draw for the next campaign as well when it eventually comes around. And hopefully we can do what we have not done for a right few years and get to a finals. The last one I can remember was when I was growing up as a kid, so it would be good to give the fans that again.”
Croatia are guaranteed to finish runners up in Group A and are destined for the play-offs as one of eight best placed sides in second place.
“We watched Croatia against Belgium the other night,” recalled McArthur, “and I think watching them and realising we beat them the last time, now we want to obviously want to get two wins over them, which would be unbelievable for such a high-ranked team.
“It would put us back on the map as a team that other teams will come here and fear – as teams used to – so we’re looking forward to the match.
“Because we didn’t have a game on Friday, we have had a lot of time to work towards this particular match, which is good, and hopefully we can take the things that the manager has shown us into the game.”
According to the Wigan player, Strachan has done “wonders” for the nation. He noted the positive influence he has had on the players with his “bubbly character” – and the effects of this can be seen on the pitch, where Scotland have won two of their last three competitive games. They also ran England close in a friendly at Wembley in August.
“I think the fans can see it already,” said McArthur. “You look at our results and even though we lost to Belgium, we played quite well at times.
“We played really well against England, so yeah, it would take us another step in the right direction.
“We obviously want to finish on a high for the fans as well. You can tell from the reaction of people that we are making progress. Rather than tip-toeing around things, they are saying well done. Everyone is in an upbeat, confident mood.
“We obviously want to stay high up in the rankings as well, so this is a big game for us.
“We want to try and climb a few more places again so we can make sure we put ourselves in better pots. It might not make things any easier, but it could make things a little less difficult.”
“I’m hopeful we can do that as a group and with the manager as well,” he added.
“He has done wonders for the nation.
“You look at where we were from when he first came in to where we are now. We’ve beaten top sides and we’re even playing well against the really big sides when we are not getting results.”