IT’S almost 13 years since Scotland last played an international match in Poland and none of us who travelled with the squad on that occasion is likely to forget the experience in a hurry.
It was April 2001 when Craig Brown, in the midst of an ultimately failed bid to reach the 2002 World Cup finals, took on the challenge match against the Poles.
At the time, the United Kingdom was gripped by the foot and mouth outbreak, which led to more than 10 million sheep and cattle being culled. The crisis made headlines across the world and the Polish authorities were taking no chances in dealing with their Scottish visitors.
When the SFA’s charter flight touched down in Bydgoszcz, the unheralded city in northern Poland chosen to host the fixture, soldiers emerged from the airport terminal building to place disinfectant mats at the foot of the aircraft steps.
Players, coaching staff, SFA officials and accompanying media were instructed to disembark in groups of 30 at a time, the stern-faced military personnel ensuring we all walked over the sodden mats. Once inside the arrivals hall, we had to wash our hands in sinks full of disinfectant before being allowed to collect our baggage.
It was hardly the friendliest welcome Scotland had received on an away trip, but it almost seemed appropriate to the bizarre circumstances which had surrounded the match from the start.
Roger Mitchell, the hapless chief executive of the Scottish Premier League, characteristically put his foot firmly in his mouth during the build-up when he criticised the SFA for taking on what he described as a “diddy international”.
The SPL, or more presciently Celtic and Rangers, were unhappy at the match taking place just four days before the final Old Firm fixture of the season – notwithstanding the fact the title had already been wrapped up by Martin O’Neill’s dominant side.
Predictably, there were withdrawals from the original squad named by Brown. Celtic and Rangers withdrew two players each – Paul Lambert and Jackie McNamara from the Parkhead side, Barry Ferguson and Allan Johnston from the Ibrox team (equally unsurprisingly, only Johnston did not feature in the subsequent Old Firm showdown).
Brown also lost Hearts defender Steven Pressley as well as Sunderland forward Don Hutchison and Manchester City striker Paul Dickov to injury, prompting him into a frantic search for reinforcements.
Barry Nicholson and Stevie Crawford were scrambled from Dunfermline Athletic, while Newcastle defender Steven Caldwell and Rangers striker Kenny Miller were promoted from the under-21 side also travelling to Poland for a friendly.
But it was the last man to receive a call-up who provided the press pack with the best and most heart-warming tale of all. Andy McLaren, the one-time Dundee United prodigy, was rebuilding his life and career after drug and alcohol problems had led to him checking into The Priory clinic while he was a Reading player in 2000.
The winger was in eye-catching form at the time for a Kilmarnock side who would finish fourth in the SPL that season and being drafted into national service was the ultimate vindication of his personal recovery.
“It was all a bit unreal,” said McLaren, speaking to The Scotsman yesterday from the Glasgow office of A&M Training, the award-winning charity he co-founded five years ago to delivery physical activity to youngsters at risk of involvement in substance abuse, gang membership or anti-social and criminal behaviour. “It was actually about a year to the day since I’d come out of rehab. Not many people can say they’ve come out of rehab and then played football for their country. It was a very proud and emotional time for me and my family.
“I just remember it being a mad rush when I got the call late on the Sunday night. I had to go to Rugby Park first thing on the Monday morning to get my boots, then head to Glasgow Airport to join the squad.
“The press boys all wanted to speak to me, then we had to go through all the foot and mouth precautions when we got to Poland before we could start concentrating on getting ready for the game.”
The match was an 18,000 sell-out at the Zdzislaw Krzyszkowiak Stadium – named after Poland’s 1960 Olympic gold medal-winning 3000m steeplechaser – and Brown’s starting line-up included four debutants in Barry Nicholson, Charlie Miller, Gavin Rae and John O’Neil. Three more – McLaren, Steven Caldwell and Kenny Miller – earned their first caps as substitutes. For McLaren, who replaced Colin Cameron at half-time, it would prove to be his only appearance for Scotland. Had he been more forceful on the day, it might also have brought him a goal for his country.
The Scots had fallen behind to a 49th-minute header by Radoslaw Kaluzny but were handed a great opportunity to equalise 20 minutes later when the same player was penalised for a soft challenge on Scott Booth inside the box at the other end of the pitch.
“When the penalty was awarded, I was nearest the ball and picked it up,” adds McLaren. “Normally, with the ball in my hand there is no way I would have let anyone else take it. But, for maybe the first time in my life, I was a wee bit shy on that occasion and I agreed to hand the ball over to Scott.
“Fair play to him, he stuck it away and we got a good 1-1 draw from what was a decent performance. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think back and wish I’d insisted on taking the penalty.
“I can still remember having a lump in my throat when the national anthem was played before the game. I didn’t get another cap for Scotland and, if things had been different for me at periods of my career, I could have probably played for my country more.
“But it will be always be special to me that I did play for Scotland. That’s why no-one should ever describe a Scotland game as meaningless – it can mean everything to someone who plays in it.”