John Collins: We must reach Euro party we’re helping to host

John Collins at Hampden Park, the  venue for four Euro 2020 matches next summer.
John Collins at Hampden Park, the venue for four Euro 2020 matches next summer.
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In a year’s time Scots will either be gripped by Euro 2020 fever or doing their best to pretend it isn’t happening.

That’s harder when it’s taking place on your own doorstep. It would of course be very Scotland to miss a party they are helping host. Hampden will stage four matches, with one of them guaranteed to involve Scotland – providing they get there, which remains the burning the question.

This is the challenge Steve Clarke has inherited from Alex McLeish. Stewart Regan, the former SFA chief executive, once stressed it was “unthinkable” for Scotland to miss out but, after two defeats in their opening four qualifiers, there’s a distinct possibility they could be on the outside looking in.

Yesterday marked a year to go until the first whistle of Euro 2020. It’s getting nearer while fears are Scotland are getting further away.

John Collins knows better than most how it feels to be on centre stage and what we’ve been missing. He played in two major finals, scoring against Brazil in the opening game of the 1998 World Cup – the Scotland men’s team’s last appearance on such a stage.

He also took part in Euro 96 in England and recalls the “groundswell” of support and “the excitement that gripped the nation”. Scotland were at least there and created memories to last a lifetime. It’s grim imagining such a carnival taking place in Scotland’s own backyard and there being no Scottish team involved to cheer for.

Scotland are three points better off than they were last week having seen off Cyprus with a late winner. Anything from Tuesday’s bracing night in Brussels would have been treated as a bonus, so the 3-0 defeat must be set in perspective. Better teams than Scotland will lose as heavily in Brussels.

Like Clarke, Collins still believes Scotland can qualify from the group. If they don’t there’s a play-off opportunity that’s a legacy of the McLeish era. Collins is glad of this second chance. It wasn’t the case in his days when Scotland had to finish in one of the top two places to qualify or else secure a play-off. “It would be disappointing to miss out but with play-offs we will never have a better opportunity of reaching a finals,” he said. “It has been too long now, over 20 years, but this gives us a second bite of the cherry if we don’t make it through the group stages. Fingers crossed for everybody, the fans, the players and the staff, we can make it this time.”

Collins would be happy to be divested of the distinction of being one of the last group of Scotland players to reach a major finals. But he’s a realist. He knows fans might have to try and see four games taking place in the country as some sort of 
consolation for not being there. Details of these matches were also released yesterday.

Fans across Europe can apply for tickets to games in each of the 12 host cities, including Glasgow, with applications open for a month until 12 July 2019. Tickets prices are in three categories, with the cheapest set at £50 and most expensive at £185. Scottish fans will hope these ticket prices will become a relevant matter of debate.

“There is nothing better than when Scotland are involved in a tournament,” said Collins. “These events are special and 20 years is a long time.

“The reality is that there’s a possibility we won’t be there as we haven’t done it for a while. Euro 96 was a special event for all of us and it felt like a home tournament with the Tartan Army flooding down south. There were great venues, packed out and everybody remembers that tournament. Unfortunately we lost to England but I thought we put up a really good show in the 
other games.”

Qualifying for next summer’s tournament would mean another busy schedule for Scotland’s top players. Callum McGregor played his 69th game of the season against Belgium on Tuesday and will only have a short break before he is back in training for Champions League qualifiers, which start next month for Celtic. Although Collins would relish playing so many games and still looks as though he could handle such a hectic schedule he’s aware it’s not possible to keep performing at a top level without reasonable time to rest. “You can become a little bit stale, players need a break away from the game in the summer and if it’s only 10 days or two weeks, that’s not enough,” he said. “Anyone will tell you that. It’s getting worse for the likes of Celtic, but it’s a sign of success I suppose at club level.”

Often frustrated by the level of professionalism around him when a player and manager, he can only admire McGregor’s athleticism and endurance levels. “It’s incredible,” he said. “It’s the 
sign of success and the sign of a healthy football player who is eating right, sleeping right and taking 
care of themselves. There’s not many footballers who could cope with that, although I would have tried. It’s the sign of a successful career when you are playing that many games, I think you have to take the positive from it. Hats off to him.”

l Ticket applications for UEFA EURO 2020 are now open at euro2020.com/tickets. Hampden Park will play host to four matches on 15, 19, 23, & 30 June 2020. Be part of it!