Scotland's Euros was always fatally flawed: Osterley incident, exposed shortcomings and hurting Steve Clarke

Another ill-fated major finals adventure ends in lots of questions

Only Scotland could suffer a scenario where they were bundled on to an early flight home after the latest-ever European Championships goal. O - and that’s a lament not a zero, although both are appropriate – Caledonia. 

No shot attempts in the first half against Germany and, crucially, in the first half of the must-win game against Hungary says it all. As it stood on Sunday night, there were still 20 teams waiting to play their final group game and it had already been confirmed that no side would return home with a fewer number of attempts on goal (17) and on target (3) than Scotland. 

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The statistic is the joint lowest since such records began, at the 1980 European Championships in Italy. This dubious honour is shared with Northern Ireland, who did at least make the most of their 20 total shots, scoring twice – both goals credited to their own players – in the 2-0 win over Ukraine in the middle group match. It meant that they reached the last 16, something that continues to elude Scotland. 

Ally McCoist’s decisive strike against Switzerland at Euro 96 remains the last time Scotland won a match at a major finals. It remains the last time a striker scored at this level for Scotland. It’s a good job it was such a thrilling goal because it’s had to sustain Scots for a very long time. 

Scotland have the poorest attacking stats at Euro 2024.Scotland have the poorest attacking stats at Euro 2024.
Scotland have the poorest attacking stats at Euro 2024. | Getty Images

McCoist’s presence in the commentary gantries in Germany has been a sobering reminder of better days, although it must be remembered that the current wailing and gnashing of teeth are better days in comparison to not qualifying at all. Respect must still be paid to Steve Clarke as the balls are put away.    

The image of a groundsman patiently waiting for Scotland players to turn up for training at their HQ in Garmisch-Partenkirchen on Monday morning is particularly poignant. Scotland assistant manager John Carver provided this nugget of information on Friday as he sought to illustrate why Scotland were not ready to go home. 

The Englishman hired to look after their pitch had made a point of not saying goodbye when he clocked off on Friday. He said he’d see them again the following week, as attention turned to a knockout stage appointment. If only. 

The players travelled back to their base in the Bavarian mountains by bus following the last-gasp 1-0 defeat to Hungary, arriving shortly after 3am on Monday. The inquest was already in full swing in the bierhalles of Stuttgart and elsewhere. The great inquisition before the grand exodus. 

It will centre on Clarke’s supposed caution amid a major complaint concerning his sparing use of the Lawrence Shankland. The Hearts striker was given brief cameo appearances in the first two games and then was sent on after 76 minutes in the final match. The appalling incident involving Hungary striker Barnabas Vargas meant Shankland’s time on the pitch was extended by another ten minutes. It had all become pretty desperate by this stage, with goalmouth scrambles looking most likely to produce a goal. Ripe circumstances, perhaps, for Shankland. However, the ball never fell for him. 

The idea that things might have been different had he played from the start or, indeed, had come on at half time in any of the games is for the birds. Unless Clarke was also planning to implement a whole new playing system, Shankland would have suffered in the same way as Che Adams through lack of service. 

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Clarke had stressed his intention to delve deeper into his resources this time around but six outfield players did not see any action, as opposed to four last time out. Spare a thought for Greg Taylor, unused at both Euro 2020 and Euro 2024. When might he get his next chance to break his major tournament duck? 

A connection may well be drawn between Scotland’s early, undistinguished exit and their status as the second oldest squad (behind Germany) at the tournament, with an average age of 28.3. Clarke has already acknowledged the need for a refresh prior to top group Nations League assignments in early Autumn, which might not be something anyone wants to think about now. The first one, against Poland, is just over 70 days away. It's fair to grant - and Clarke deserves - some clemency, as thoughts turn to mounting a bid to qualify for the next World Cup. 

Because as much as the manager will hold himself to account for the underwhelming performances, what damaged Scotland's prospects most significantly happened far from the playing fields of Munich, Cologne and Stuttgart, where Scotland’s lack of strength in depth and other shortcomings were there for all to see. 

Rather, the origins of their woes can be traced to a Brentford FC training pitch in Osterley, where Aaron Hickey came to grief earlier this year. A hamstring tear ruled the first-choice right wing-back out of Euro 2024. Similarly, any review of Scotland’s performances must register the closing minutes of an Everton v Chelsea fixture in April, when the full-back, and Hickey’s deputy, injured his hamstring having come on as substitute in a 6-0 drubbing at Stamford Bridge. 

Would more game-time for Lawrence Shankland have made a difference?Would more game-time for Lawrence Shankland have made a difference?
Would more game-time for Lawrence Shankland have made a difference? | Getty Images

Then there’s Lesser Hampden just two weeks before the tournament began, where Lyndon Dykes suffered such a devastating slip in an innocuous training ground incident. Losing Kieran Tierney for nearly half of the tournament was further terrible misfortune. 

Not that Clarke was going there quite yet. Asked on Sunday evening if Scotland’s ambitions were compromised before a ball had been kicked at Euro 2024, he said he “never speaks about injuries, it’s my default (position)”. He and his staff will contemplate this and other factors over the coming weeks, he conceded, but it was all too raw and painful right now. Clarke is hurting, too, of course. He could represent the most significant casualty of all in this latest ill-fated major finals adventure. A proud man, he may conclude he has taken Scotland as far as he can.

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