Scotland are the best fourth-placers we’ve produced

There were small crumbs of comfort at Hampden on Thursday night, not least the two wonder strikes from Matt Ritchie and Steven Fletcher. Picture: SNS
There were small crumbs of comfort at Hampden on Thursday night, not least the two wonder strikes from Matt Ritchie and Steven Fletcher. Picture: SNS
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IT’S DAY three of the inquest and I think I’ve got a promising lead. We shouldn’t blame Robert Lewandowski for Thursday night, nor point the finger at Matt Ritchie for giving away the free-kick. And the Poland fan who threw the smoke-bomb which engulfed our rooftop piper should, grudgingly, be congratulated rather than reprimanded. The fug made Hampden look like the setting for a crummy horror movie, which in the circumstances was spot-on.

No, the chief architect of our downfall was the supporter who ran on to the pitch in the closing minutes for a selfie alongside Lewandowski, probably adding the extra seconds which brought the free-kick. Lewandowski looks like the kind of player who could score a goal with a ned in grey tracky-bums in tow, grinning into a cameraphone. We know for sure to our dismal cost that the Bayern Munich hotshot is the kind who can find the net while looking at the ref, arm raised and appealing for a penalty, just in case he doesn’t score, which of course he ends up doing.

Can we blame Poland's late equaliser on this young supporter who ran on the pitch for a selfie with Robert Lewandowski? Picture: SNS

Can we blame Poland's late equaliser on this young supporter who ran on the pitch for a selfie with Robert Lewandowski? Picture: SNS

In the immediate aftermath, there was a lot of talk of this being a new way to die, that in Scotland’s long and ignoble history of cock-up, calamity and crivvens-help-ma-Bob Lewandowski, we’d never before contrived to exit a competition in such an appalling set of circumstances. Come on, we’re Scotland: there’s nothing new under our gloomy sun. Pitch invaders have cost goals before.

In 1979 when we thought the European Championships were for swots and cissies and the only game that mattered was the one against England, we were 1-0 up at Wembley when a skinhead wearing a tartan scarf clodhopped on to the famous cabbage patch in his Doc Martens and led half a dozen of the Old Bill a merry dance. In added-on time at the end of the first half the whiteshirts trundled an equaliser past George Wood and the rest is Scottish football history. You want some irony? I’ve got some. The Jock was actually a Scouser, impersonating a member of this mad breed who had a bit of gallus glamour about them back then and have been trying to rediscover it ever since.

The Scotland who failed on Thursday were the best fourth-placers we’ve ever produced. Does that make you feel better? Probably not, but it’s true. George Burley’s Scotland were never fourth like this and certainly Craig Levein’s Scotland weren’t. In the manner we went about not getting to Euro 2016, the competition where everyone gets a prize or at least a place, there are tiny slivers of consolation if you bother to look for them.

When have Scotland scored bonnier, meaningless goals than Shaun Maloney’s against the Republic of Ireland, the same player’s away to the Poles, Ikechi Anya’s in Germany and the two fired high into the net by Matt Ritchie and Steven Fletcher in that incredible encounter the other night?

All five were every bit as elegant and every bit as redundant as the pair netted by Kenny Dalglish in 1982’s lost qualifier against Belgium.

As we leave the party before it’s properly begun, these are the lucky bags we’ve been given. There’s also the easy-on-the-eye style, the team’s relative youth, the revived support, the canny manager. Enough to make us believe we’ll once again take our place at the finals of a major tournament? Stranger things have happened, stranger teams have emerged – Iceland, for instance.

“When our ship comes in, we’ll be at the airport.” My dad wrote these words in a play called Jock, dating from 1972, which examined all of the Scottish psyche, not just the bit obsessed with football. Faither will have had the failed campaigns of the 1960s in mind, and could not have foreseen that we’d soon gorge on qualifications. But gorge we did.

When the gorging stopped we were told that successful Scotland teams appeared “in cycles”. Right now, hurting as we are, this seems like one big lie, like the Chopper bike promised one Christmas which never materialised. In cycles? Aye sure. It’s not quite true that Scotland were last good-looking, debonair and qualified around the time of the invention of the wheel; it just seems that way.

That canny manager may not be around when we get back on our tricycle for our next competitive fixture, sometime in the far-off autumn of next year. I think this would be a shame, for both him and us. International football suits Gordon Strachan; he only has to get exasperated by journalists’ silly questions a dozen times a year as opposed to three times a week if he were at a club. He has turned Scotland around and got us playing as attractively as the talent pool allows. Morally, the wee man can be disappointed with a lot of things about modern life, but he really cares about the national team.

Critics will argue he’s taken us from fourth to… fourth. But Group D was tougher than some others. He thinks we were unlucky in some matches, but the home game against Georgia was won with a deflected goal, while we were fortunate to get out of Dublin with a draw. That performance was poor, a criticism the players will accept about Tbilisi, which was actually a shocker. One shocker we could have taken if it had been followed up by a stunner; Scotland used to be much more gasp-and-groan after all. But the epic victory never arrived.

It could have been, should have been, Thursday. Strachan had pointed out beforehand that Scotland goals weren’t bountiful and had to be the result of multi-pass moves with the players working extremely hard to bring them off. How thrilled he must have been, as were we all, to witness not one but two wonder strikes, the result of two of his men – both vindicated picks by the manager – being brave with the left boot. They were the kind of goals in which stellar types like Lewandowski specialise.

But Scotland were undone by surely the most snively, scabby and downright ugly goal ever scored against us. More awful than the one Iran scored in Argentina, worse than the one which almost resulted in Stewart Kennedy garotting himself on a Wembley post. In the Hampden bowels post-match, the man from the Daily Record called it correctly – the “shite-iest”.

It used to be said that Scotland fans were secret tragedians, weirdly addicted to melodramatic defeats. Well, they’ve grown tired of wearing that bunnet and just want to qualify again. I could be fooling myself, but through the remnants of the smoke bomb I think I can see a bit of hope.