The offending bulletin, when it dropped at around 10.20am, stopped Scotland in its tracks. The SFA communications team chose to illustrate the tweet in question with a photo of six seemingly well-inflated footballs. It would have been more apt if they were burst balls. How to deflate a country with 10 little words: “We can confirm that Billy Gilmour tested positive for Covid-19”.
If not quite a where-were-you-when moment, it still felt hugely significant. Although very different circumstances of course, some were comparing the seismic nature of the development to Willie Johnston being sent home from the 1978 World Cup for use of a banned stimulant.
Others came up with other examples of mid or pre-tournament drama, from Kenny Dalglish withdrawing from the squad for the 1986 World Cup due to injury, to goalkeeper Andy Goram pulling out shortly before France ’98, while at a pre-tournament camp in the United States, because he heard he wouldn’t be starting.
They were established Scotland stars, not someone with one full cap to their name. And yet the announcement seemed as startling.
At a time when Scots were preoccupied with calculating all the scenarios which would see Steve Clarke’s side eliminated from Euro 2020 even if they win tonight against Croatia, a potentially mortal blow was struck from within the camp. Somehow, Gilmour, the second youngest player in the squad, has been infected by Covid-19.
There was some good news. Somehow, no other close contacts had been identified. Skipper Andy Robertson quickly deleted some footage of him and John McGinn playing table tennis with Gilmour the previous evening from social media.
Of all the players, why Gilmour? It’s terrible to think this way, but let’s face it, many did. Why not someone, erm, more dispensable. Perhaps a player who has not yet featured or someone who plays a position less crucial to the working of the team than the centre of midfield.
We are in the midst of a major finals, the country’s first in 23 years. People are hungry for news. Any titbit from within the camp is gobbled up. But this was not what anyone wanted to hear. This could happily have stayed in-house.
Revelations about Lyndon Dykes’ shaved head were being treated with the reverence of proverbs the previous day: there is an unending appetite for information because we all feel invested in this project, particularly after hope was reignited at Wembley thanks chiefly to Gilmour’s starring role in midfield. It seems particularly cruel to be pitched into fresh despair so soon.
Of course, the main priority is the health of a young footballer. “He is asymptomatic, no symptoms,” Clarke confirmed at his pre-match press conference last night.
There’s also the player’s mental welfare to consider having gone from the high of London to this low in 60 hours. Clarke revealed he suffered the rudest of awakenings when he was given the news at 6.50am yesterday morning.
The manager confirmed Gilmour would have started against Croatia tonight although that’s hardly surprise news. It does, though, underline just what an enormous blow Gilmour has suffered as he prepared to make his home Scotland debut in a major finals against a team who were World Cup finalists only three years ago. “We’re with you, Billy,” tweeted Chelsea FC supportively.
Gilmour has the additional burden of knowing that Chelsea teammates Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell are also now self-isolating after being deemed to have had close contact with the midfielder at the end of the Wembley clash. Strangely, manager Gareth Southgate only rated the pair “doubts” for England’s clash with Czech Republic tonight. But it seems likely they will be doing what Gilmour will be doing – stewing in their hotel room.
It’s a lot for a young man to cope with. Gilmour will have been texting Mount and Chilwell to apologise when of course, there’s nothing to apologise for. Clarke stressed that the Scotland players were now determined to make it up to Gilmour by ensuring that he stays in the competition and has the chance of playing in the quarter-finals, which is when he is next available to play. They will be doing their upmost to keep Gilmour in the tournament.
So, what is left for Scotland? Do we simply have to rely on Stephen O’Donnell complimenting Luka Modric on his lovely, glossy hair, or perhaps Dejan Lovren’s biceps.
Of course not. However disappointing, Scots must be careful to avoid falling prey to the suffocating emotion that saw Brazil waste the opportunity to win the World Cup on home soil in 2014 after Neymar’s tournament-ending injury. No Scotland player will be carrying Gilmour’s No 23 jersey with them onto the pitch this evening.
Just as there were options last Monday against Czech Republic when Gilmour didn’t play, there are options ahead of tonight’s must-win game.
“I have a change I need to mull over and think about, hopefully I’ll come up with the right solution for the game tomorrow,” said Clarke.
The manager remarked on the quality of the training session on Sunday involving the 13 players who did not feature against England. “Oh my God, these boys didn’t even get on the pitch against England!” he thought to himself.
Scotland are certainly well stocked in midfield. Callum McGregor proved a superb accomplice for Gilmour on Friday night. The Celtic player will let no one down if he assumes the mantle of conduit between defence and attack with, potentially, Scott McTominay reinstalled in midfield beside him.
Gilmour’s absence is a major setback but a far from insurmountable one on a night when history beckons for Scotland. Clarke's side are striving to win for five million Billy Gilmours.