Steven Naismith has discovered that being a campaign veteran with Scotland is a bruising experience. By his own frank admission, the country’s international footballers found themselves in a “bad place” this summer.
But while failure to reach the Euro 2016 finals initially left him in despair, Naismith believes being the only home nation to miss out on the tournament in France can ultimately prove a source of inspiration in the quest to reach the 2018 World Cup finals, which kicks off for the Scots in Malta tomorrow night.
“Watching the Euros on TV, my first reaction was ‘for God’s sake’,” says the Norwich City forward. “It wasn’t easy to be the only ones left at home. But as it went on, and I watched a lot of my mates doing well with the other home nations, I started to think ‘this is amazing’. Then you hear the stories from your team-mates back at your club and there is a bit of jealousy there.
“When you look at the rest of the home nations and how they performed at the Euros, then it gives you a buzz in terms of trying to get to a finals.
“So ever since we met up this week, the thinking has been that we need to give ourselves a chance to experience it this time. For a few of us, there are not going to be any more chances.”
Naismith will celebrate his 30th birthday this month and is conscious of the clock ticking on his own international ambitions. This will be his sixth qualifying campaign with Scotland and he accepts there can be no guarantees it will not also be his last.
“I wouldn’t say that I am thinking ‘Oh, this is my last chance’,” he added. “But it is definitely in your head that you have been around for a while.
“When I look at the squad and how many of the faces have changed recently, I do think back to when I started I realise time is running out. There have been a couple of times when optimism has been high. In the last campaign it was really high, more so than ever.
“Although we ended in a bad place at the end of it, I still think there was progress made by the team. We had a meeting after the campaign and addressed a few things we need to change. There has been nothing major, just a few small tactical things we are going to do differently. All the preparation, in terms of hotels and when we meet up, is all good.
“So you just hope this campaign can be a good one. But, like Scott Brown did this time, I will sit back at the end of the campaign and think: ‘Is it right for me to continue?’ It will depend on whether I am playing regularly and how I am feeling in terms of my body.”
Naismith, who hopes to win his 44th cap in Valletta tomorrow, believes Scotland are already facing a ‘must win’ fixture in Group F, which England are odds-on favourites to win and claim the sole automatic qualifying spot.
“Starting off in Malta, we need to win as it could be the difference between qualifying or not, even this early,” he said.
“England will be massive favourites and will be totally different under Sam Allardyce than they were under Roy Hodgson in the Euros. But their defeat to Iceland there does show the smaller nations can do well against the bigger ones.
“We proved that ourselves with some of our performances in the last campaign. It was the game away to Georgia which did us in. That was a game we were favourites to win. So losing that is one we have to look back on.
“There is similar expectation on us to win in Malta this weekend but we will not be taking it lightly. This is one of those games where we will have to start at a good tempo and be quite aggressive in our attacks.
“We need to concentrate on ourselves, game by game. When we come to play against England, there will be a similar feeling to the games against Republic of Ireland in the last campaign in terms of it being a big local rivalry.
“Funny things can happen in those games. Everyone will be massively tipping England to beat us but we will be confident going into every game, with the players we have and the way we know we are capable of playing now. If we can get the right result in Malta, then hopefully we can build some momentum at the start of the campaign and take it from there.
“There are definitely some very tough games in this group but with the experience we now have as a squad, there are no excuses for us not being able to compete for qualification. If we compete as we can in each game, we will always have a chance of winning. Let’s just hope we can turn up when it matters and be good enough to get there.”