Scotland's Euros issues continue to niggle and gnaw a week on from failure

Just like in 1978, Scotland flunked under expectation - and eyes quickly turn to club game

A spruce-up for the old ground, lushness on the pitch and the sun shining. Everything was set fair for the first game of the new league season.

But, while normally there would be a spring in the step of the big crowd clogging the walk-up to Tynecastle - and if not high excitement then at the very least relief that football was back - the mood was murderous.

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This is what I remember about Hearts vs Aberdeen in August, 1978. The memory can play tricks, I know, and the home fans would ultimately have been exceedingly - and justifiably - grumpy at their team losing by four goals to one. But I’m talking about the atmosphere pre-match, when this representative sample of the Scottish footballing public had gathered for the first time since the national team’s sorry retreat from Argentina’s World Cup. Faces were uniformly glum, there were none of the usual friendly greetings among folk who knew each other just from standing in the same spot every Saturday, and hardly anyone said a word until kick-off when one fellow in front of me and my father muttered: “This had better be f****n’ good.” Perhaps I’ve applied a dark brush to the picture of the day that’s stayed in my mind - a Scottish trait, after all - but I really don’t think so.

Contrast then with now. It’s true, the men in charge could not be more different. “Mr MacLeod, what do you plan to do after the World Cup?” Ally: “Retain it!” The quip summed up his ebullience. Steve Clarke’s Bumper Book of One-Liners, though, is probably still awaiting its first entry. Not that football management needs to be comedy, and Clarke’s soor-ploom countenance - and the impression reporters are trying to extract teeth from him rather than simply quotes - would have been disregarded, in fact more like celebrated, if the team hadn’t come home too soon.

But there are ways in which the tournaments chime, or rather discordantly clang. In ’78 the top goalscorer in the domestic season, player of the year statuette on the mantelpiece, could not get a game in Argentina. For Derek Johnstone then, read Lawrence Shankland now. The Hearts man was permitted brief cameos when the situation became desperate. Johnstone, despite following a Treble-winning campaign for Rangers with goals in the Home Internationals, including a header against Northern Ireland which seemed to defy physics, was overlooked. That despite going to the bother of a godawful perm.

Steve Clarke's Scotland team ended the Euros with one point.Steve Clarke's Scotland team ended the Euros with one point.
Steve Clarke's Scotland team ended the Euros with one point. | Getty Images

When the situation became desperate for MacLeod he turned to Joe Harper who had been his striker at Aberdeen. The boss’s loyalty did not serve him well in Argentina, He stuck with Don Masson and Bruce Rioch despite poor club form and ignored coming man Graeme Souness until it was almost too late.

Clarke faces a not dissimilar charge, granting what will almost certainly be final tournament outings for loyal servants Stuart Armstrong and Kenny McLean, both now 32. The head coach, to be fair, did not have a Souness stewing on the bench or a sulking DJ. Everyone fit enough and deemed good enough was in the squad. We didn’t have the luxury of leaving a Jack Grealish at home or jettisoning a Marcus Rashford, although with England’s current problems on the flanks, Gareth Southgate’s axing of that pair is being questioned.

But, given our problems on the flanks when crosses had to be from dead balls - and Andy Robertson’s free-kicks were so feeble and Scott McTominay on corner duty rather than his 6ft 3ins being used in the box was so bizarre - why did Clarke not turn to James Forrest? He operates out wide. He wasn’t knackered from playing loads for his club. His timing and form to help Celtic to a Double had been scintillating.  

Too many did seem exhausted - notably John McGinn - and the same seems true of England with Southgate similarly accused of over-reliance on the loyalty card. Clarke’s resources were stretched by injuries, which continued during the tournament. We needed our best eleven at their best and didn’t have that.

James Forrest did not play one minute at the tournament.James Forrest did not play one minute at the tournament.
James Forrest did not play one minute at the tournament. | Getty Images

Still, there are other issues which niggle and gnaw at us. Why, when we heard so much about history-making and the team being ready to make the leap into knockout, did they start the tournament looking like they were shocked to find themselves on the pitch, as if they’d been dumped from the back of a lorry and spun round a few times before blindfolds were removed?

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Did they believe the hype? Where were the mind-doctors? Did losing 5-1 frighten the players? Was that why we were then so timorous, reasoning that two deflected goals might be our limit? Were we really hoping to draw our way out of the group? And - even though sado-masochism is another Scottish trait, there’s no perverse pleasure to be gained here - how does it feel to be rated Euro 2024’s most fearful, most impotent and the most dismal watch?   

Other nations our size and smaller - and lacking an equivalent song to “Scotland Brave” - have been more adventurous, more courageous. Our risk-averse, winger-averse leader worked tiny wonders to get us to Germany. But once there, while the Tartan Army were everyone’s favourite party guests, the team stood awkwardly in the corner of the room, breaking an ornament before slinking out the back door.

Argentina destabilised Scottish football but I don’t anticipate a repeat of the universal gloom. We think differently about the national side now, not as obsessively. The club game is king, and while there was some pathetic club-centric cause-and-blame on social media in last Sunday’s aftermath, it calmed right down when the new domestic fixtures were released. 

Ah well. At least in ’78 we briefly glimpsed Dreamland. These sadly were our worst-ever finals.  

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