One month tomorrow Scotland return to the European Championships after a 25 year absence. It’s been 23 years since the national team last played at a major finals – the World Cup in France 1998.
Yet it’s only 15 years since the country lifted its last international trophy – the Kirin Cup of 2006.
Davie Weir was presented with the silverware in the balmy Saitama Stadium a decade and a half ago today, after spoiling Japan’s pre-World Cup party by holding the hosts, and tournament’s ever-presents, to a 0-0 draw to end the tri-nations round-robin.
Brazil legend Zico, then in charge of Japan’s national team, admitted his admiration for Walter Smith’s side, which was without the likes of Barry Ferguson, Christian Dailly, Craig Gordon and Steven Pressley. The Brazilian saw “a lot of potential” in the inexperienced, yet victorious squad which would later go agonisingly close to qualifying for the 2008 Euros, but he cautioned that joining Japan at the World Cup’s next staging in South Africa 2010, was “probably too early to tell if they can make it”.
Would Zico have guessed it would be a further 15 years before they reached a major tournament – and yet to return to the World stage?
It might well have been an invitational, but nevertheless, the radiant smiles on the Scotland team’s faces paved the way for that memorable charge to the brink of continental qualification two years later, under Smith and Alex McLeish.
Craig Brown is the last manager to lead the country to a major finals – but even he can’t boast the Kirin Cup. His 1995 attempts saw the hosts take the trophy on goal difference. A scoreless draw with Scotland saw both share top spot of the tournament table but Scotland’s 2-1 win over Ecuador with goals from John Robertson and Stevie Crawford were outdone by the hosts’ 3-0 win over the South Americans in the final game.
Nine years later Walter Smith’s side went one better – indeed three goals better which proved pivotal.
Scotland had shown their potential even before the makeshift final against Zico and Japan, racking up an impressive 5-1 win over Bulgaria in front of a meagre 5,800 crowd in Kobe to place themselves in pole position for the last game in front of ten-times as many spectators in Saitama.
The Bulgaria win was memorable no doubt, as any 5-1 success for the national team would be – but also marked the debuts of Kris Boyd and Chris Burke who each hit a double on their international bows – Boyd’s in the first half, Burke’s in the second, with a magical lob for Scotland’s fourth. James McFadden volleyed in between the pair.
That set up the final match nicely – Japan’s last warm-up before heading to Germany for the summer’s World Cup. Scotland would be watching at home, but with a trophy banked in the cabinet and a great degree of optimism to boot. It has remained unfulfilled until now, 15 years on from Scotland’s last trophy success the Tartan Army are back at a major finals.