They were born and bred in England but when it comes to international football, Hampden Park is the only place the former Downing Street advisor and his son could be tonight as they hope to witness a World Cup win for Scotland
We were both born and raised, and have lived most of our lives, in England. We both support Burnley, currently riding higher than at any time since the early 60s. But we have both inherited from our fathers and our ancestry more generally a love of Scotland and a passionate support for its national football team. Father has told son of the great times at World Cups and European Championships. Son hopes one day to be able to experience the same thing, hopefully in father’s lifetime.
There have been, as with Burnley, some great father-son bonding moments out of following Scotland. There have been, as with Burnley, many ups and downs, perhaps more of the latter than the former. But there is always, as with Burnley, an overwhelming desire, excitement and hope when, as in the next few days, the big games and the big opportunities come.
We both remember the last time Scotland were in the play-offs for a major championship. The second leg took place on 19 November, 2003. Work and school got in the way of us being able to travel. Perhaps it was for the best. We were sat at home in London, watching from the sofa as the dream of qualification crumbled bit by bit as Dutch goal after goal went past Rab Douglas. Ruud van Nistelrooy scored a hat trick.
With 15 minutes to go, the score was 6-0 and Scotland were effectively out. Sky Sports, no longer that interested in the game, zoomed in on the stands as the Scotland fans sang non stop to the end of the game. The football was largely irrelevant now. It was those amazing fans who became the story.
Moments like that build loyalty, develop passion, and resilience. The game was lost, badly. Technically, physically, Holland were superior. But spiritually there was something so special about the Tartan Army.
Those big defeats help the great wins seem even greater when they come. The famous night in Paris in September 2007. No work or study was going to get in the way of that one. We were there. Excited that Burnley’s Graham Alexander was in the side. Loving the noise and the camaraderie of the thousands fans ‘coming down the road’ from the centre of the French capital to the citadel of the French game, the Parc des Princes. A team of top flight superstars like Vieira and Makelele, Ribery and Trezegeut, Malouda and Anelka bettered and beaten by a team of Alexanders, McCullochs, McManuses and Weirs, and, of course, by James McFadden and a goal that was as simple and beautiful as the game itself.
Those last few minutes hanging on for dear life, then the explosion of joy, the sheer ecstasy of father and son, 20,000 others who made the stadium throb with Scottish fervour all night.
One thing is for sure following Scotland - it is never done the easy way. Beat France in Paris then lose in Georgia. Draw with England, conceding a last minute equaliser, but draw at home to Lithuania, by scoring a last minute equaliser. Punching above our weight against bigger foes and making hard work of lesser opposition. That’s Scotland.
But when you consider it’s been almost twenty years since Scotland qualified for a major tournament, the enduring support of the Tartan Army has been phenomenal.
You’d struggle to find a country anywhere, let alone one with all the failures and mediocrities of the last two decades, that still regularly attracts close to 50,000 home fans and 10,000 away fans for big games.
Yet this time the hope can be matched by the outcome, because this Scotland team has talent we have not seen for some time. The ever developing potential of Kieran Tierney and Andrew Robertson, the ever improving skill and guile of Stuart Armstrong, the direct running of Matt Phillips, James Forrest and Ryan Fraser and the consistent class of Leigh Griffiths in dead ball situations. These players believe they can achieve now. It was clear to see in the build up to Chris Martin’s goal at home to Slovenia. After 88 minutes of near misses and bad luck, Tierney and Armstrong worked their magic, prodded for an opening and it came. Armstrong released Martin for a cute finish and we were back.
It was obvious at Hampden against England this year as the players kept going and but for one last cross, would have secured a famous victory after those two beauties from Griffiths. We were there for that one too, convinced that second free kick was going to end up exactly where it did. That’s what happens when the confidence of the players transmits itself to the supporters. Gone was that feeling that ‘this is bound to fly ten yards over the bar’. That confidence was clear in Lithuania where there was a panache rarely seen by a Scotland side in modern times and a majestic cruising to to victory. The team has a spirit and belief. Quality players all over the pitch. Match winners.
So here we go again, crunch time once more. Most campaigns, we would enter a game like the visit of Slovakia with a sense of trepidation, a fear that we were about to witness certain failure again. Not now. We believe in this side’s fluency, their mentality, the ability of the best players to change a game. Two games. Both there to be won. Supporters in the main confident it can and will be done.
There has been bad news in the build-up, with both Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong pulling out through injury. But there is still hope. Because as Burnley fans who watch Scott Arfield week in week out can tell you, if your squad is deep enough to make him go Canadian, that is a proper squad.
What makes this nation special brings us back to that Holland game. When the dream had ended in Amsterdam that night, the fans kept the spirit alive. The game was up but the party was just getting started. This time, the dream is far from being up. It’s very much alive to reach those World Cup play-offs.
This time, we don’t need six goals in fifteen minutes, which was Amsterdam’s Mission Impossible. We need six points from two games, which is Mission Totally Achievable the way Scotland have been playing. We know the players will be up for it, and so will the supporters. Fans always like to think they make a difference. Why should a wall of noise make a difference? But it does. So let’s make it.