What a crazy-mad bunch of World Cup-drunk optimists and major finals-junkies we must have been 16 years ago this week to have swanned into Riga with our hopes pinned on Matt Elliott.
No offence to the big Leicester City man with the Scottish granny. He’d been a boot-faced member of Craig Brown’s security detail of three macho centre-backs when we’d required a tough point from a mean town in previous campaigns. But … Elliott as a striker?
The experiment failed. Scotland against Latvia, according to our man, delivered a first half of “unrelenting mediocrity” and didn’t get much better after the original plan was discarded, Neil McCann’s 88th minute winner coming against the run of play.
“There’s something peculiarly Scottish,” wrote the late Glenn Gibbons, “about the national team manager sensing the need to defend himself in the wake of an away victory in the opening match of a World Cup qualifying campaign which has taken his side to the top of the group.”
Wha’s like us, eh? Expectant, entitled, buying the Berlitz guide as soon as the draw’s made. That was Scotland back then, having been at six of the previous seven World Cups, and you might even have found some members of the Tartan Army reluctant to acknowledge the missed 1994 tournament as it took place in America.
And now? We’d be delighted with unrelenting mediocrity against Malta tonight and thrilled with three points.
Oh, how sights get lowered. We’ve sat at home all summer watching England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have the most enormous fun at the Euros in France – well, the last three; England were comically bad – and been jealous as hell. Hang on, we pioneered tournament travel! We were first to exaggerate our national dress and customs! We were first to bathe in the municipal fountains!
The next World Cup is in Russia, the first of two with dodgy back-stories and of course getting there will be costly, with gruelling distances between venues that already seem to be marking the tournament down as one of the least attractive in history. But Scotland simply have to qualify.
The Tartan Army are so desperate to re-establish themselves on the global stage of beer-drinking at outdoor tables that they’d accept the World Cup going to Syria. They’d wear the football at the World Cup converting to games of long-bangers. They wouldn’t really mind if the World Cup was bought over by Masterchef or Strictly Come Dancing and re-branded as a reality show adjudicated by camp fools. Just as long as Scotland get there.
What a lot of pressure for Gordon Strachan as he attempts to shape up a team without his just-retired skinhead death-stare midfield anchor and captain. Scott Brown divided opinion. There were times in the last couple of years when he was unavailable and Scotland moved the ball quite slickly and you wondered if the side couldn’t just survive without him but grow in a different way. Then he’d return and bring them clout and dig and strut.
In Scotland’s first qualifier of the new century, the pressure on Brown – Craig, not Scott – was about continuing the tradition of being at the big party. England hadn’t made it to the US either so there was a desire to maintain our record of the best attendees among the home nations. Some were tiring of the manager’s cautious formations, overlooking the fact we no longer possessed a Kenny Dalglish or a Graeme Souness. We actually built a decent platform for that campaign but still failed.
When qualifying began for the next World Cup we had to say goodbye to the Matt Elliott era and welcome the Nigel Quashie one. The new manager was Berti Vogts, hoping to take us all the way to the finals in his German homeland. Not so new, though, that he wasn’t already under pressure, and a goalless draw at home to Slovenia for openers only increased it.
There was some grudging acceptance of a what was an energetic, committed performance. “Almost overnight,” our man reported, “Scotland had acquired a previously unsuspected compactness, cohesion and understanding.” Vogts said: “I don’t think that was two points dropped.” Oh yes it was.
Remember the start of the next campaign, for the World Cup in South Africa, when we were told that some brilliant negotiation had secured us the perfect opener – Macedonia away? Well, Macedonia in September turned out to be scorchio – too hot for the Scots and George Burley. Our verdict was that the expedition to Skopje had been an “unqualified disaster”. This was a performance which “hinted strongly at forthcoming bleakness”. There was no satisfaction in seeing that scenario come to pass.
Craig Levein was already feeling the heat by the time the qualifiers for Brazil 2014 came round, with the unsuccessful effort to get to the last Euros pock-marked by 4-6-0. He got given a home game to try and achieve a winning start but Scotland could only draw with Serbia. We spoke of a “serious disconnect between the team and the Tartan Army” with the bullish Levein responding to the jeers by stressing he would not be swayed by them, otherwise “you are as well not having a manager and letting the supporters pick the team”.
Scotland didn’t plump for that option next but, who knows, it may yet come. Meanwhile, Gordon Strachan has the job of returning us to the World Cup scene. We’d have liked to have been in Germany and loved to have got to Brazil but beggars can’t be choosers: Russia it is.
Maybe, not confronted by a gnarly bunch from the old Soviet Union or Yugoslavia and ending in “ia”, we’ll start better this time. The England games will be the big ones and I’m just sorry Scott Brown won’t be around for them. When we played the Auld Enemy in a friendly a couple of years ago, he scolded the English press for their lack of knowledge of Scottish football. I’d have loved to have heard him check the homework he set them: “So do we know who Kilmarnock are now?”