Since the moment David Marshall saved Aleksandar Mitrovic’s play-off penalty to book Scotland’s return to a major finals – a first appearance since 1998 – hope has revitalised a nation that desperately needed something to engender a sense of community after far too long in isolation; something to unify at a time when so many other aspects of life have fostered disparity.
Attracting the highest viewing figures for a home nation during the qualifiers, Scotland cast their spell in the tense penalty shoot out in Belgrade. That was in November and the hope that resilient showing ignited has been flickering ever since. The performance from Steve Clarke’s men as they out-played the Netherlands in the tournament build-up served as bellows, fanning the flames.
And that hope has buoyed a generation who were being introduced to the highs and lows of elite international football at a far more personal level than has ever been possible throughout our 23-year exile.
It was that hope that allowed football to firmly embed its claws in those who had never seen their countrymen mix in such lofty company, who grew up dreaming of netting a winner for Barcelona or Manchester City in a Champions League final, or coming out on top in a Fifa 21 battle on their PS4 or XBOX rather than running around back gardens and parks fantasising they were Kenny Miller or Ally McCoist, King Kenny or Archie Gemmill.
In previous decades, the football dreams were tinged in dark blue or tartan, and the stage invariably the World Cup or European Championship final. But deprived of homegrown role models during the biggest football jamborees, a generation grew up asking for Messi shirts, Portugal strips with Ronaldo on the back, and ran around in the France kit, or that of Germany or Belgium. Until this summer.
This summer it was all about Scotland as the names of John McGinn or Andy Robertson, of Billy Gilmour or Kieran Tierney tripped off their lips.
It was again about national pride, not simply club loyalties and, reflecting the mood of the young men representing them on the field, having experienced their first wild party and realised what they have been missing all these years, those who experienced their first involvement in a major finals do not want to wait another couple of decades for a repeat invite.
The Scotland manager promised “we’ll make sure it’s not 23 years before we go to the next tournament” after the lucky few who managed to get their hands on tickets for Hampden had responded to the squad’s applause with a rendition of ‘We love you Scotland’
Captain Andy Robertson, who was just four the last time anyone had led the country out at such a big event, reiterated just how fresh the experience had been for everyone.
“We’re one of the newbies to this, it’s been a long time coming and all of us will gain experience. We are a squad with a lot of potential and it’s important we build on this. We can’t go another 23 years.”
Newbies, maybe, but that hadn’t diminished the hope. Not even against World Cup finalists and a former Ballon d’Or winner.
Ignorance may be bliss – but the youngsters’ positivity was infectious. People who had been taught not to expect much and you won’t be disappointed had become increasingly disengaged, but suddenly they recognised there is little joy in those dark corners and reengaged, while people who had become adept at filling Saturday’s without club football thanks to lockdown were reminded of the camaraderie, the emotions and the hope that the national sport encourages.
Houses were decked out in flags and bunting, as so many homes became Covid-friendly fanzones. And, kids started to dream. Not just about what this squad could and can still achieve, but about one day pulling on that shirt and running out at Hampden themselves.
Okay, there was disappointment when it became clear that Clarke’s men were not going to be able to build on the performance against England and take us beyond the group stages for the first time but before that there was hope – oh so much of it – and it didn’t kill anyone, it brought smiles to faces, joy to families and kids back out to playing fields, playing out scenarios where they were the ones peeling away in delight as the Tartan Army sang their name.
Some of those who haven’t developed the emotional calluses needed to negotiate life as a football fan may have cried themselves to sleep last night, but they woke up hoping that it will not be too long before they can, once again, paint their faces, wrap themselves in flags and beg for the latest Scotland strip or join the Tartan Army and follow Scotland abroad.
Like a mother who goes through the hell of labour, time dilutes the pain and the good times roll and the positive memories become more vibrant. Which is why kids are still chanting about super John McGinn and even as we are going, they are singing “we’ll be coming”.
Hope doesn’t kill us. It thrills us. And that is why having proved that yes sir, we can boogie, it is tough to be asked to leave the dancefloor. Even if some footsoldiers are jaded, there is a whole new generation of Tartan Army fuelled by hope and ready to do it all again.
Clarke and his squad have captivated a new generation of fans and breathed fresh life into the game at a time when that kind of intervention was necessary. When the dust settles and the post-mortems are complete, that fact should not be lost.