Ten years ago this weekend, a group of Scottish footballers gathered under the guidance of a legend of their game to face the cream of their European counterparts. During a hot summer in Poland, Archie Gemmill’s squad defied expectations to reach the final of the UEFA Under-19 European Championships where they were edged out 2-1 by a brilliant Spanish side.
In the last two decades of generally dismal showings on the international stage at all levels by Scotland, it remains a stand-out performance.
For those who took part, and subsequently represented Scotland at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup finals in Canada the following year, their individual careers inevitably followed drastically varying paths.
Five of Gemmill’s squad went on to represent Scotland at senior international level – Lee Wallace, Garry Kenneth, Graham Dorrans, Robert Snodgrass and Steven Fletcher.
Others, such as then Norwich City defender Andrew Cave-Brown, drifted down the divisions and out of senior football altogether.
There is, of course, a high casualty rate from any level of youth football. It is something Andrew McNeil, an ever-present for Scotland at both those European Championships and the World Cup in Canada, can appreciate more than most.
The former Hibs goalkeeper, still playing senior football at Morton, is able to reflect on a veritable “Who’s Who” of the game when he looks back at those he played both alongside and against during his early years.
“You don’t know who the guys you are playing against are at the time,” says McNeil. “You just get on with the job in hand. It’s only when you look back on it later that you realise.
“To qualify for the finals in Poland, for example, we had knocked out a France team which had guys like Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri. Then in the finals, there was Spain who had Gerard Pique, Javi Garcia and Juan Mata.
“Usually a lot more players fall out the game quickly after playing at that level.
“But if you look at our squad from 2006, you have guys like Lee, Robert, Graham, Steven Fletcher and Mark Reynolds who have all gone on to have really good careers.
“If you look at under-19 Scotland squads from other years, you will find hardly any of them still playing senior football. So that is testament to the quality of that group of players we had.
“I was quite fortunate in that regard. I can also look back at the Southampton youth team I was in and which reached the FA Youth Cup final in 2005 – we had players like Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Adam Lallana and Nathan Dyer.
“It’s nice when you see these guys going on to have really good careers.”
After a 2-2 draw with Portugal in their opener in Poland, Scotland were thumped 4-0 by Spain before beating Turkey 3-2 in their final group fixture to join the Spanish in the last four.
A goal from Hearts striker Calum Elliot, now retired due to injury and manager of junior club Edinburgh United, was enough to defeat the Czech Republic in the semi-final and book a rematch with Spain.
Trailing 2-0 to a double from Real Madrid striker Alberto Bueno, now with Porto, the Scots rallied with a late strike from Dorrans and almost forced extra time.
“We got an absolute doing in the first game against Spain, there is no two ways about it,” says McNeil. “That was tough. When you are playing against a team like that, who you’ve never played before, they can catch you out.
“When we got the opportunity to play them again in the final, they were still the better team but we gave them a right good game. On another night, we might have edged it. It was a great experience for us.
“It does feel like a long time ago now. As a squad, we had pretty much been together since under-16 level and the Victory Shield. It was quite a close-knit bunch.
“Looking back at it now, with Scotland having struggled at youth international level most years since then, you get more of sense that we did really well with that squad.
“A lot of it was down to Archie Gemmill as manager. He had Tommy Wilson with him, who is a really good coach, excellent technically and in terms of working with the ball. He was great in terms of strategy and tactics.
“But Archie gave us something which I don’t think is too common in football nowadays – he kept things simple. It was all about the fundamentals with Archie. He would go around each one of us, reminding us what our job was.
“He’d just say ‘Andy, you’re a goalkeeper, so what do you do? You communicate and stop the ball going in the back of your net – that’s it’.
“He’d then move on to the defenders, telling them their job was to head it and kick it, defend the goal and the box.
“For strikers, it was ‘run channels, hold it up’. It gave us a solid base to work from, then the players with that extra quality could go and do the things that win games.
“I think nowadays too many teams get caught up with the new-fangled ways of coaching, but sometimes the basics work best. Archie was really good at getting that across.
“He and Tommy were a great combination, while we also had a brilliant goalkeeping coach in Gordon Marshall who was a huge influence on me.
“If we had won the final in Poland, I think it would be right up there as the best achievement of my career. But I went on to get a winners’ medal with Hibs in the League Cup the following year.
“I played for Scotland at every age group up to under-21 but I never got near the senior international squad.”
Since leaving Hibs in 2009, McNeil has played for Montrose, Raith Rovers, Livingston, Airdrie, Alloa and now Morton. He also had a spell in New Zealand.
“I’m honestly happy to still be playing,” he adds. “At 29, it’s amazing how many guys have fallen out of the game.
“I’d much rather be in Steven Fletcher’s position, right enough, with all those big cars and big transfer fees! But I still enjoy my football and it’s nice to have the memories of those times representing Scotland.”