Scotland's Euro 2024 touchdown is close - even if Cyprus pilot sparked concern and woollen socks in searing heat

The captain’s welcome greeting on the flight here had prompted some anxiety.

There was the usual amiable greeting to his passengers as well as some housekeeping preamble, including the reminder that, as much as excitement was understandably building with regards to a certain football match, there were families on board, and consideration for fellow travellers and sun-seekers ought to be paramount. In other words, save the singing and general merrymaking for the town square. The thing was, which town’s square?

It was his next casually delivered statement that prompted such unease, particularly among the Scotland-top and kilt-wearing passengers – though it’s likely all those on board were troubled by their holiday plans going so suddenly askew, or so it seemed. The captain breezily announced that flying conditions were good, there was no significant delay to the take-off slot and that the temperature in Paphos was much as it has been all week, in the mid-30s.


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Billy Gilmour could start for Scotland this evening.Billy Gilmour could start for Scotland this evening.
Billy Gilmour could start for Scotland this evening.

The plane was meant to be going to Larnaca, scene of Scotland’s (sort of) date with destiny against Cyprus in a not-quite-but-potentially-nearly-decisive Group A Euro 2024 qualifying fixture this evening. Air hostesses spent the next few minutes fielding worried enquiries. Two flights for Paphos had left from Edinburgh within minutes of each a little earlier. It wasn't inconceivable that we’d boarded the wrong plane.

The captain's voice crackled over the speaker system once more to offer some reassurance. Oh dear, silly me, he announced. It was Paphos he’d flown to the day before. That’s why it was in his head. Fear not, Larnaca was where all the dials on his dashboard were pointing to – and where his plane was heading. Relief flooded through the cabin. Here we go, here we go, here we go.

In a way, Scotland are aiming to operate on autopilot in the AEK Arena tonight. Not to the extent where they court mishap by failing to sweat the details – manager Steve Clarke would never permit that. But his side just need to keep to the flight plan they’ve followed in the current qualification campaign to date. They must continue to do what they've done so far in Group A, which is win. One more, and the job’s a good ‘un – surely.

That would make five straight victories, 15 points. Okay, it might not be a cast-iron guarantee. Not yet, at least – though it might become one on Tuesday depending on results. But even the Rev I. M. Jolly would be encouraged to look out a road map for Germany should Scotland clinch three points in this pleasant hotspot on the edge of Europe, where the next stop – just a 40-minute hop across the Levantine Sea – is Beirut.

Scotland train ahead of facing Scotland in Larnaca on Friday.Scotland train ahead of facing Scotland in Larnaca on Friday.
Scotland train ahead of facing Scotland in Larnaca on Friday.

Distance hasn't deterred the Tartan Army. When does it ever? Neither has heat. Woollen socks, kilts and badge-laden Glengarries were still the order of the day as fans mingled outside white-washed, shutter-windowed buildings in the sun-blanched streets of the oldest town on the island.

The game had originally been scheduled to take place in Nicosia, the capital – and a uniquely divided one at that. But several factors combined to force a switch, not least the apathy currently being shown towards their international team by Cypriots. Gone are the days when 25,000 attended this fixture in Limassol in 1989, a game Scotland won deep in injury time.

Manager Temuri Ketsbaia scolded those who stayed away after only round 500 turned up for Cyprus’ last home outing against Georgia, his home country. Visiting supporters outnumbered the home fans by about three to one. It will be more than that this evening, hence why Cyprus preferred to play the game at the smaller AEK Arena as opposed to Nicosia’s far-larger GSP Stadium.

But it’s not about where Scotland play these days. It is about where they’re at. And where they’re at is being able to field a team including players from not only the English Premier League, but from Serie A and also La Liga, with Kieran Tierney’s loan move to Real Sociedad lending even more eminence to the group. His next two assignments after Cyprus? Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and then Internazionale in San Siro in the Champions League.

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The striker position will almost certainly be occupied by a Championship recruit, however, though neither Lyndon Dykes or Che Adams, the likelier to start, has ever let anyone down. Billy Gilmour, meanwhile, looks like he has found a home as well as settled form at Brighton. He is in contention to start in midfield.

Steve Clarke said he felt “vindicated” for remaining loyal to the player and including him in squads when he wasn’t playing much club football. Speaking last night as he leant against a wall outside the AEK Arena, the manager stressed that he wanted to make Gilmour feel “trusted, wanted”. Clarke’s own relaxed demeanour seemed notable. There is trust in him and his methods.

What is it they say about rats in cities? One is often in their presence without being aware of it. Sometimes it feels that way with Scotland and calamity. Even in upbeat times, a sense of impending doom pervades. Calamity is out there. Somewhere. Unusually, it does not seem this way with Scotland on this trip. Even Ketsbaia believes the deed is done – the Scots are already there, whatever the outcome this evening.

The former Newcastle United midfielder delivered this contention yesterday with the firmness of the kick he aimed at those advertising hoardings at the Gallowgate End of St James’ Park all those years ago. Asked if he thought Scotland were on course to reach Germany next summer, he said they are already there. They are qualified. It is done.

If only. But Clarke is navigating the hurdles. This is the latest one. Take away the heat factor, and it’s essentially a home match for the Scots. It won’t hopefully require a current-day Richard Gough to rise out of the heat haze to head home a winner in the fifth minute of injury time, as was the case all those years ago – although a win’s a win. Touchdown is close.