Scotland’s first group win since 1981 offers validation for Alex McLeish

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A hugely uplifting evening at Hampden, lit up by James Forrest’s exhilarating hat-trick, resulted in an outcome that was quintessentially Scottish.

In exhibiting gumption and grand ambition, the national team’s ascent to the summit of their Nations League section marked the first time since 1981 that Scotland have finished top of a group.

Scotland goalkeeper Allan McGregor pulls off a late save to deny Israel's Tomer Hemed. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS

Scotland goalkeeper Allan McGregor pulls off a late save to deny Israel's Tomer Hemed. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS

The twist is that it is the first group they have contested that doesn’t actually qualify them for a major tournament.

There might be a whole load of hotch, and copious dollops of potch, about this inaugural Nations League.

But the tension, drama and sheer chomp-bits-of-your-bottom-lip-off through fear of a late collapse proved that the new competition does not serve up “glorified friendlies”.

What it does offer is validation for Alex McLeish. This was the third competitive win in four outings of his short but sometimes brutish second spell in charge of the national team.

The bottom line is that McLeish and his men have reached the Euro 2020 play-offs and ensured Scotland will now go into the standard qualifying campaign next year knowing that, whatever unfolds, it cannot end their prospects of reaching a major finals for the first time since 1998. It can be set apart from the ten they have participated in since reaching the World Cup finals, in France.

The psychological benefits provided by the safety net that follows success in Nations League C Group 1, should not be underestimated, then.

Should Scotland fail to claim one of the top two berths in the group that will be drawn in Dublin on 2 December, they will still remain only two games away from ending their seemingly permanent exile from major tournaments.

If they require to access the Nations League play-off route, the probability is that their semi-final will be a home game against Finland.

That would be dependent on the Finns also not succeeding through the old-fashioned Euros qualifying route.

That home advantage, allied to the assurance of being a pot three side in the standard Euro 2020 draw, were two more prizes claimed with last night’s 3-2 victory over Israel, alongside the more obvious play-off reward.

Stick with the complex scenario, if you will, but in the event of Scotland playing and beating Finland in that March 2020 play-off, they would then face a play-off final against either Serbia or Norway.

The usual provisos apply to these two countries actual having to pick up the Nations League route then, of course…

The venue for that one-off final to decide the team that claims a place in Euro 2020 finals via the National League C level will be decided by a simple draw.

What that could mean is that Scotland could have two games at Hampden to seize themselves the chance to play games in a major finals at, wait for it… Hampden.

It has been described as unthinkable that Hampden could be one of the host locations for an international tournament and Scotland not be involved.

Nothing, though, is either thinkable or unthinkable when it comes to the tortured recent history of the international team.

Had you said a Celtic player would rattle in five goals in two games to see Scotland through to the Nations League play-off, not one solitary soul would have thought that player could be Forrest, his technique both in netting a double in the 4-0 Albania win on Saturday night and with his triple last night stupendous.

The winger had not found the net in his previous 24 Scotland appearances.

Moreover, it would have seemed preposterous to suggest that such a night to savour for the national team – and it was that, with all its undulations, all the ding-dong slugging that the home side and Israel traded – could be played out in a Hampden that wasn’t even half full. Scotland supporters have been beaten down by hard luck stories or last gasp vanquishing of hopes.

The country’s followers ought to celebrate the Nations League group stages for bucking the conventions set in the other two such qualifying phases for major tournaments.

McLeish talked of his efforts being the start of something in Albania the other night. For once, that didn’t pre-empt a sorry end.