Across recent generations, the ageing process for elite players in Scotland has involved ever more grains of opportunity to perform on the game’s greatest stage slipping through fingers. Even if he has not long ago turned only 28, Callum McGregor recognises that tonight’s World Cup qualifier in Austria tonight is one of those occasions to consider how fleeting football fortunes can be.
The Celtic captain was only six when Scotland last participated in the greatest jamboree his chosen profession has to offer. If Steve Clarke’s men don’t conjure up a result in Vienna, it will be as good as a given that the country will miss out on a sixth straight World Cup finals. Unlike with Euro 2020, there is no Nations League dog’s chance to capitalise on this time around. McGregor will turn 33 when the 2026 North American extravaganza rolls around. The midfielder knows then that the current campaign potentially could be his last to help Scotland reach a World Cup.
‘You get older and you realise that tournaments are hard to get to, hard to play in,” he said. ‘When you are younger you say, ‘there’s the next one and then the next one.’ I’ve heard that story so many times. Even when I was younger I heard it from the experienced guys, who were the same. You keep saying, ‘next one’ and then suddenly you are running out of time. That knowledge makes you appreciate a bit more the opportunity that you have. Playing in the Euros in the summer gave everyone a taste of it and we are desperate to get there again and hopefully get to a World Cup as well.
“if I’m honest I don’t really remember [Scotland at France 98]. What the long gap shows you is just how difficult it is to get there. The game is evolving so much and you need to show real quality to get there. The fact we managed to do it in the summer will give everyone confidence. And it makes you appreciate playing at that level and makes you desperate to experience more.”
Scotland, it must be said, have not enjoyed any notable footballing growth from their Euros experience, which placed them at a major tournament for the first time in 23 years. They were easily swatted aside by Denmark in Copenhagen last Thursday before struggling to put Moldova away in their 1-0 Hampden win on Saturday. Austria, even if smarting from the 5-2 whipping to Israel at the weekend, aren’t the sort of team that Scotland have matched outside of their own environs. Only with their penalty shoot-out Euros play-off victory in Serbia last November and the scoreless draw against England at Wembley at the finals in June did they pass the sort of test that is represented by their Viennese test.
McGregor accepts that, with the number of points already dropped as the result of a loss and two draws across their five games, the assignment may require the sort of against-the-odds win every successful qualification campaign must produce. ‘We are running out of games now in terms of getting towards the end of the group,” he said. “This is the biggest fixture, if you will. We need to get something. That’s the full focus of the players. We hope we can go there and deliver a top performance and [do that]. I hope we can make a big statement.”
There was no statement from Clarke in electing to start with McGregor on the bench against the Moldovans. In his midfield partnership with burgeoning young talent Billy Gilmour rests Scotland’s best chance of wrestling midfield control from the hosts - as the pair did at Wembley, before McGregor bagged a brilliant first goal for his country in the subsequent exit to Croatia. At club level, he has taken his new arm-band wearing duties for Ange Postecoglou’s recast side in his stride, but that has come with an onerous workload. Austria will represent his 14th competitive game of a season that is only six weeks old. Clarke was mindful of that in utilising him as a 65th-minute substitute against the Moldovans.
“Because there are so many games it’s almost impossible to play every single one,” said McGregor, who was handed the Scotland armband when Andy Robertson left the pitch in 74 minutes. “The manager has been really good with me in that sense. If we’ve got three games in a week you will normally sit the middle one out and then you are back in. I think he obviously is cautious with that and while you might want to play every game, I think it takes its toll. The manager uses the squad and uses it well.”
McGregor is determined to use his experience and seniority well, with captaincy changing him “ in the sense that you become more responsible for your team-mates”. "You try to help them a little bit more and you always have to set the example for others to follow,” he said. “The good thing about this Scotland squad is that we have a few captains and leaders. I always think the best teams are built on having three, four, five guys in the team who can take responsibility at any given time. You can't just put that on one person in this day and age, with the way the game is played. That's a big ask, so all the other guys need to chip in and help Andy Robertson as well. That is going to be vital moving forward.”
Vital above all for Scotland right now is finding the means to move forward in a World Cup qualifying campaign that has never developed any real momentum.