THERE we were, gathered in rows on a Sunday morning, faces turned towards big screens and praying for the sort of miracle draw that could be viewed as attractive, entertaining but, above all, kind to Scotland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2016.
Perceived enemies of the Tartan Army were not welcome. When Berti Vogts’ face flashed up, the booing reached a crescendo, although it shouldn’t have escaped anyone’s notice that the nearest Scotland have come to qualifying for the European championships in recent times was under the German’s charge. And each time England were mentioned, jeers predictably also filled the room.
Many favoured the prospect of featuring in England’s group but this possibility disappeared when Scotland were drawn out of pot 4 to play in Group D during a lengthy ball-selection process that risked sapping the enthusiasm from many watching. But not those present at the Nevis Suite, Hampden Park, on what was a rather surreal way to spend a Sunday morning. At such events – which are increasingly critical to Scotland as they hope to qualify for a first tournament since 1998 – the need for a Good Draw is paramount. Yesterday was decreed to be a Fairly Good Draw, which means Scotland have at least made a start on the road to France, although the real work has still to begin.
It was to the great credit of Mark McGhee and Stuart McCall that they were prepared to join the fans yesterday at Hampden, where they became the equivalent of animals on parade in a zoo. We gazed at them sitting on stage and surveyed their reaction and tried to read in their facial expressions what they truly felt as the identity of Scotland’s next opponent became known. Not that we needed to. They were admirably honest with their answers during a special Scottish Football Association-organised event for between 300 and 400 members of the Scotland Travel Club.
Expertly hosted by Peter Martin, who required only the addition of a dog collar to his all-black garb to appear like a vicar addressing his flock, both McGhee and McCall took the inevitable ribbing from the MC in good humour. McGhee in particular had to fend off barbs about looking like a country and western singer in his outfit of checked shirt and jeans.
He was also pressed by Martin as to why he was so keen for a meeting with Israel, after which he had to admit he had a lot of family in Tel Aviv, presumably on his wife Maria’s side. As well as Israel, McGhee’s preference was for teams where Scotland could at least hope to encounter clement conditions, such as Greece and Croatia. McCall, meanwhile, wished for Greece and Hungary from the top two pots.
No-one complained when it emerged that Germany and the Republic of Ireland would be Scotland’s top challenges, although the presence of Poland from Pot 3 provoked more than a little concern. Of course, Germany have been all but anointed as group winners already, while McGhee was handing them a World Cup as well. “Potentially we could be playing the world champions,” he said, with reference to Germany, who it has since transpired will host Scotland on Sunday, 7 September.
McGhee then described the group as “almost boring” – but in a good way. He explained that he meant we had been spared another stellar team, other than Germany, unlike when Scotland drew both Italy and France in the last but one European championship qualifying group. McGhee’s point was well made. Except for Germany, these are teams that Scotland can at least hope to beat, and even the Germans have not pushed Scotland aside in recent competitive meetings.
Almost the biggest cheer of the morning was heard when Belgium were drawn in someone else’s group. There was also laughter when Gordon Strachan’s stony-faced features flashed up from Nice as Scotland were confirmed in Group D alongside Germany, Georgia and Gibraltar, who fulfil the role of Rocky Outcrop Designed To Threaten Maximum Embarrassment normally occupied by the Faroe Isles.
Strachan had clearly been briefed not to show any emotion à la English FA chief executive Greg Dyke’s throat-slitting gesture when England were handed an arduous looking group at the World Cup in Brazil. Instead, Strachan looked as though he was almost asleep, or at least nonplussed, which is a good look to adopt in the face of a series of do-able, if tricky, challenges. Strachan later spoke of having bumped into Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane, which prompted McCall to ask what he described as the most pressing question of the day: why, if Keane was in Nice, was McGhee sitting there in Glasgow with the rain battering off the Hampden windows? Cue more laughter.
Questions were then invited from the floor. McCall faced one on the subject of the injury-afflicted James McFadden, such a totemic figure in past qualifying campaigns. Was he ever likely to reach the level where he could be recalled by Scotland? “I think it will be difficult,” admitted McCall, who is, of course, now the 30-year-old’s manager at Motherwell. It was a poignant moment on an entertaining morning. New heroes will have to emerge if Scotland are to give the Tartan Army what they so desperately want.