WHEN Shaun Maloney curled the ball into the back of the Irish net to bring a raucous Celtic Park crowd to its feet, it was supposed to be the confirmation that Scotland had finally arrived back on the European football scene, and that the elusive qualification for a major tournament, which had deserted the Tartan Army since 1998, was finally going to be seized.
The goal showcased all the positives about Gordon Strachan’s Scotland squad. A team which played with organisation but with an eye for flair, and built around a cohesion that would impress most club sides. It should have been the crest of a wave that carried this country into the European Championships. Instead, it turned out to be the peak moment in what, ultimately, proved to be another in an apparently never-ending series of disappointments.
This wasn’t the only key strike by the Hull City midfielder as, two minutes into the return match with Ireland, his deflected effort equalised for the travelling Scots in a gutsy 1-1 draw, a scoreline which, coupled with the earlier victory, seemed to underline their credentials as the better of the two footballing nations.
So it was perhaps fitting that with a place in the play-off round, the last hope of a Euro 2016 place, slipping from Scotland’s grasp in the dying moments against Poland – with Ireland incomprehensibly leading against Germany – that it was again Maloney at the heart of the action as the campaign reached its nadir. When all of Hampden stood dumbfounded as the ball bounced off the inside of David Marshall’s left-hand post, the playmaker reacted quicker than any defender as it spun across the goal-line. He would have saved some hope for the final qualification match, Sunday’s 6-0 drubbing of Gibraltar – where Maloney, of course, netted once more – had Robert Lewandowski not arrived there first.
Maloney admitted that his winner against Ireland had been the highlight of his career up to that point. Unfortunately, with the campaign at a close, he had to admit the opposite was true of Lewandowski’s 94th-minute equaliser.
“I think for an individual moment I would probably say yeah,” responded Maloney when asked about last Thursday’s hammer blow immediately after the final group match in Faro. “I have lost leagues on the final day, I have been relegated as part of a team, but for an actual individual moment and a goal you are sort of lying there in the back of the net, yeah, it was heartbreaking. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling.
“If felt as if the world went into slow motion when the ball hit that post. I’d imagine that it was the same for everyone in the stadium. The feeling of utter despair ran through the players and everyone watching. It was literally his leg over my leg. It was surreal. We’ve had it before where these inches in games make a huge difference.”
The goal eliminated Scotland, but there was still the business of travelling to Portugal for the final group meeting with Gibraltar. A “dead rubber”, in Maloney’s own words, it may have been, but rather than ending the adventure on a bitter note, it allowed Scottish players and fans to again reconnect through the shared passion instilled in all parties through their support for the national team.
Cynics will, somewhat rightly, dismiss the match considering the quality of opposition, though there was certainly a spring in the Scots’ step as they played with much greater fluency and confidence than when the sides last met at Hampden back in March, a time when momentum was fully behind the Tartan Army. The gloom hanging over the squad was not evident, something which Maloney credits the travelling fans with lifting. And so the cycle begins again, as gleams of positivity are stoked from the dying embers and Scotland turn their minds to the next campaign.
“The performance was very good considering what has happened in the last few days,” said Maloney. “The people who came to support us genuinely gave us a huge lift in terms of the game obviously being a dead rubber. I think we saw the people who had gone out of their way to come and watch us. It was pretty inspiring really. Hearing the crowd in Faro is another reason to get yourself up in the morning.
“That was definitely part of the sad feeling in Portugal, that we couldn’t give them a successful qualifying campaign and yet they still reacted like that. But I think they can see that the squad got very, very close this time.
“The group tables don’t lie and eventually we came up short in our group, not through lack of trying. I think we’re starting to bridge the quality divide. That’s what it feels like. We’re obviously not quite there but we’re certainly closer than we have been in recent years.”