If an alien had landed in the centre-circle shortly after the conclusion of Scotland’s European Championship qualifying campaign in Faro in October, it might have thought to congratulate Gordon Strachan on a job well done.
After all, over 12,000 fans were singing the manager’s name. They were applauding the players, who in turn were gathering, at Strachan’s insistence, for a group photograph, with the Tartan Army behind them. Surely it was reasonable to assume they had qualified for Euro 2016, thereby ensuring Scotland’s first major finals appearance since 1998. What a night on a pleasant stretch of Atlantic coastline was now lying in store!
This impression was only hardened by Strachan, someone who has played at the very highest level, who has won league titles and European trophies, afterwards describing the occasion as one of the most memorable nights of his career.
But on closer inspection, our alien friend might have detected some cracks in this theory. If Scotland had qualified, why were there so many questions on Strachan’s future in the post-match press conference? Surely he would wish to stay to experience Scotland’s return to the top table after such a long absence?
The furrowed brow of this green creature in the press room might have alerted those sitting nearby. Perhaps a kindly reporter took it upon him or herself to take the visitor aside, gently laying a hand on an extraterrestrial shoulder before delivering the awful, difficult-to-digest truth. No, Scotland hadn’t qualified. They had mucked it up, again.
Hard though it might be to credit, this show of appreciation was in response to Scotland finishing fourth in their group, outside of even a play-off place and below, even, Republic of Ireland, against whom they had not lost. Indeed, it was also below second-placed Poland, against whom they had also not lost.
Despite this record, Scotland were out. Despite scoring three times against world champions Germany, they had lost both matches. But if more explanation was needed, if a moment where it all went wrong had to be identified, then the date of 4 September can be circled in red ink. Scotland had every reason to treat a return to Tbilisi to play the awkward squad that are Georgia with extreme caution, having seen their Euro 2008 hopes dashed thanks to a 2-0 defeat.
Here again they failed to score. Here again they slid to demoralising and highly unhelpful defeat, without managing so much as a shot on target. From being in pole position to clinch third place, and perhaps even having a chance to finish second, they were reduced to relying on other results in order to qualify.
A subsequent defeat to Germany didn’t improve their chances, while a 2-2 draw with Poland, in which the visitors scored an equaliser through Robert Lewandowski with the last kick of the game at Hampden in October, delivered the final nail in Scotland’s coffin.
It was typical of their luck that they had come up against a striker in such a purple patch of form (Strachan described Lewandowski as the best player on the planet on the eve of the fixture). It was typical of their luck that Ireland, so unimpressive when losing to Scotland in Glasgow and also when drawing against Strachan’s side earlier this year, defeated Germany in Dublin, the second part of the double whammy that sent Scotland spiralling out.
So with a game to go, Scotland were already eliminated. When the fixture schedule was confirmed two years ago, many seized on Scotland being handed an away date against Gibraltar in the final match of the campaign. Perfect, they reckoned, for guaranteeing the three points that would take them to France in front of thousands of partying Scots in the late Autumn sunshine in the Mediterranean.
It was a nice idea. But, of course, it didn’t quite work out like that. For a start it was pouring with rain on arrival in Faro, the place selected by the Gibraltar FA to stage the game. The weather matched the mood of the SFA party, obliged to fulfil a meaningless fixture that was won by Scotland 6-0. The trip was also defined by the uncertainty that remained over Strachan’s future, hence the cheering of his name as he stood on the sidelines in the Algarve.
The Tartan Army had decided, or at least the majority of them had. Despite the disappointment, they wanted Strachan to remain in situ. Despite a far from vintage year in which Scotland had played eight times, including friendlies, and won on four occasions, twice against Gibraltar, Strachan was credited with making at least marginal improvement.
If the greeting in Faro was meant to be a seductive attempt to love-bomb Strachan into staying, then it worked. He was visibly moved by the reception, later admitting it was central in his decision to carry on, which he announced after taking counsel from his family, and assistants, Mark McGhee and Stuart McCall.
“The reaction from the supporters throughout the campaign, and in particular from those who travelled to Faro in their thousands, is an experience that will live with me for the rest of my life,” he said, while confirming he had signed a two-year extension to his contract. “It was a recognition that the players’ efforts had been appreciated.”
Now his thoughts must turn to 2016. Scotland are due to begin their World Cup qualifying campaign against Malta in September, with a meeting with Group F rivals England scheduled for November.
But first we must endure the dispiriting experience of watching every other team from the British Isles compete at Euro 2016. But not Scotland. Never, it seems, Scotland. Because, in the words of an old song that has returned to haunt us, and despite scenes indicating quite the reverse in Faro, we “didnae qualify”.