Scotland's Riemann Hypothesis goes unanswered as Euros exit plays out like a disaster movie sequel

Aidan Smith’s colourful take on watching Scotland v Hungary on the BBC

The last time Scotland lost a tournament-opening glamour game, scrambled to a 1-1 draw in the second match against a country famed for snow-capped peaks and then for the group decider headed to a city beginning with S … I was there.

For St Etienne in 1998 read Stuttgart now. I am not in “Schhhtuttgart” - the proper pronunciation, the way Ally McCoist would schhhlur it - but the rest of my countrymen seem to be. No matter. I feel like I’m there as “Flower of Scotland” thunders from my TV. Actually, I feel like I’m in a 1970s cinema equipped with Sensurround, the seriously cranked-up sound system for disaster movie Earthquake simulating the earth about to split in two.

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Oh that all we had to worry about was whether Charlton Heston could leap from the screen to catch the Kia-Ora seller before she plunged through the crack in the stalls! For here was the only blockbuster that really mattered with its familiar script and the threat of the same sad closing scene, one which has driven the country mental for half a century.

Kevin Csoboth scores for Hungary to leave Scotland players devastated. (Photo by DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images)Kevin Csoboth scores for Hungary to leave Scotland players devastated. (Photo by DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images)
Kevin Csoboth scores for Hungary to leave Scotland players devastated. (Photo by DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images)

Frankfurt in 1974, Mendoza in 1978, Malaga in 1982, Turin in 1990 and St Etienne - Scottish hopes ended in these places. We didn’t need reminding but dug-up clips from final group games which became our own disaster movies have been doing this throughout the campaign. Could 2024’s sequel be different?

No McCoist, this is another BBC match, but Gabby Logan is willing it to be so. “It’s now or never,” she says, kicking off transmission. John McGinn, underneath the stadium, looks wabbit already and explains why: the Tartan Army turned up outside the team hotel, ruining the afternoon nap with their bagpipes. But here’s Steve Clarke. Steve-o, The Stevester, give us a smile! No, he’s his usual cautious, clipped, contrary self.

In the studio: David Moyes (“We’re a really small nation”) and Rachel Corsie (“I’ve hardly been able to eat all day”). I’d wanted Joe Hart for a reprise of the previous panel but must make do with Alan Shearer. Sooking up, Shearer praises the Scotland fans, having met loads in Germany. Were they pleased to see him? “No, not really!”

“Flower of Scotland” is amazing. As amazing as Cologne but more anguished. McGinn is chest out, bum in. Scott McKenna looks petrified. Captain Andy Robertson displays the “eyes of steel” demanded by Moyes.

The commentator is Liam McLeod. Actually, he’s the anti-commentator, not really describing play. His fact-spew must be bewildering for the non-fanatics caught up in the big Scottish effort emptying the streets. Still, he captures the mood: “We do not want to go home just yet!”

McGinn, admitting he’s already had that iconic backside kicked by his unimpressed head coach, is the most threatening Scot this time - and the most fouled. Summariser Neil McCann reports that we’re winning the pass count - 171 to 44. So when can we claim the three points?

No shots on goal, unfortunately, and not even a corner. Moyes at the interval says: “We’re going to have to be a bit more exciting.” The cameras panning the stands pick out Sir Alex Ferguson. Moyes again: “Maybe the players need Fergie’s hair-dryer.” Then Logan clocks husband Kenny and son Reuben. “Hang on, so who’s watering the plants and feeding the dogs?”

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Lots of film titles begin “How to … ” How to get out of the groups? It’s complicated. If the major tournaments are parties, knockout is the party within the party - laminated invites, the most squarely-built security lunkheads on the door. Scotland have had a tendency down the years to turn up for finals in jeans and trainers, if they’ve turned up at all.

Did I say complicated? For the Tartan Army, not used to counting much beyond three which is peak goal form from the boys in dark blue, the qualification conundrum is the equivalent of the Riemann Hypothesis – generally regarded as the hardest of all maths questions. Yes, we can finish one of the best, or least-worst, third-placed teams, but what’s the clincher? The country with the funniest jokes? The most efficient train network? The bonniest hills?

To be in that situation we really need to win. As the action resumes, McCann calls for “more risk”. More Billy Gilmour would help, but in a stodgy contest the Scots can’t get him on the ball. Hungary, who surprised everyone at first by sitting back, aren’t doing that anymore. Then, on 53 minutes, our first shot. (It sails into the crowd).

Even if the team go no further, the Tartan Army have already won the cup for being the best fans. McGinn spoke beforehand of the players being desperate to keep their side of the bargain and give the supporters the qualification they craved.

Some, due back at work, must have been wondering if they could swing another week of leave. Or get away with an email telling the boss they would be “WFH” (working from Hamburg, from Hanover or from their favourite hansaplatz).

The Tartan Army - nervous - are the quietest they’ve been anywhere (town squares, beerhalls, their sleep). Every time there’s a shot of the crowd someone is biting their nails. McGinn’s runaway bull impersonation lifts them. This feels like a key juncture - for both teams.

Then: “Penalty!” In every house in the land - from Golspie to Girvan, in McLeod’s rehearsed intro - the cry is the same. But it’s not. Eh? So two desperate teams begin to throw everything at each other. Hungary hit a post. The Scottish players are like that piper in the meme from Munich, falling off a bar table but miraculously carrying on playing. And then - McLeod: “Disaster for Scotland!” - they fall off for good.

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