Scotland fans won’t need, or will want, reminding that this year marks the 20th ‘anniversary’ since the national team last reached an international tournament.
What had become a given in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s quickly went from a struggle to almost an impossibility in the subsequent years.
The rest of the British Isles (even Northern Ireland, as well as a host of smaller countries like Iceland and Latvia) have tasted trips abroad to World Cups and European Championships as the Scots have looked on.
However, as our friends at Football Whispers are here to show, this misery could be giving way to a glimmer of hope.
Better days for Scotland fans could be on the horizon, a feeling of optimism more tangible and permanent than the momentary elation of winning the odd away match. They’re probably even prepared to wait a bit for it to come to fruition. After all, what else are they supposed to do?
It’s within this context that Alex McLeish must look to Tuesday night’s Nations League match with Israel as a considerable opportunity; for him, his players and the country as a whole.
A safe pair of hands?
His appointment in February was, inadvertently indicative of the moribund nature of Scottish football in the 21st century. It was a safe, no frills, what-you-see-is-what-you-get-type hire which was supposed to steady a ship that, in reality, hadn’t left harbour for 20 years.
Of course, some of Scotland’s best and most ‘memorable’ football post-France ’98 was with McLeish in charge as they very nearly made it to Euro 2008. But then Big ‘Eck became “Big Cheque” by accepting a lucrative off with then Premier League Birmingham City. Back to square one.
Eight years on and the decision to re-appoint McLeish hadn’t looked a positive one. Before this international break, just two wins from eight – beating Hungary and Albania – had merely compounded the sense of doom that had permeated the team and its support.
But, in the unlikeliest of places in uncomfortable circumstances, came a flicker of something. An idea that maybe something could change.
Saturday’s match in Albania, with McLeish missing eight regulars, had a distinct whiff of a “0-0 at best” about it, but instead – albeit assisted by opposing captain Megrim Miraj’s red card after 21 minutes – Scotland produced a quite brilliant attacking display to win 4-0.
Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser, and Celtic duo James Forrest (who scored twice) and Ryan Christie were magical at times, all jinking runs and purposeful dribbles, playing the sort of front-foot football that was Scotland’s calling card aeons ago.
The trick for McLeish is now to repeat it. His mission statement has been to create a vibrant, young, offensive-minded side, breaking away from the defensive torpor of the Gordon Strachan era. But words are one thing, application is the hard part.
Scotland, and McLeish, need to take the confidence and joie de vivre from Shkoder and replicate it at Hampden Park, not only just to show that Albania was more than a one-off.
To truly engage a public who were apathetic at best with the state of things in the Scottish game, they need to deliver something mesmeric and memorable to their home crowd. An occasion and performance to be proud of, that people can talk about the next day at work and school.
It all comes down to this
Say what you want about the Nations League, but it’s created these opportunities and a sense that something could happen in what was previously a sea of strange friendlies with little or no purpose.
Beat Israel and Scotland will top Group C1. When did Scotland last top anything? Beyond that it will not only help their seeding for the Euro 2020 qualification draw, but also enter them into the Nations League play-off for a Euro 2020 spot next March.
The latter part is of greatest significance because it places them two games away from major tournament. Suddenly, there is hope, optimism, a sense of wonder and a realisation that the team of Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney and John McGinn could be bound for bigger things.
That all said, there may also be a worry that the sense of the occasion could inhibit McLeish and his team, especially with the injury issues continuing to rise. That simply cannot be allowed to happen.
This is a defining fixture and one that Scotland fans haven’t properly been prepared for. But on the back of their performance in Albania, they must be bold and brave and re-inject some excitement into the national team.
*all odds subject to change.
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