Sunday, June 26, 2022

Scotland – The National Team And The Delusion Of A Country

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Kenny Stewart
Chief Football writer for The 4th Official. Always honest and won't shy away from the truth.

Scotland were knocked out of the Euro 2020 the other night. Nothing unusual in that; it’s what Scotland does. We have plenty of history for this kind of thing. Get ourselves hyped up, put the team into a position to progress, then fall on our arses in spectacular fashion. It’s what we do.

I’m old enough to remember 1978 and the World Cup in Argentina. That’s my first experience of Scotland at a major championship. We had Ally MacLeod as the Scotland manager with the rare old stories and quips about how they were coming back with a medal and him being asked what would he do if Scotland won the World Cup, to which he replied, “retain it!” Those and other anecdotes will forever remain in Scottish football’s folklore.

I was eight when Argentina hosted and won that World Cup. Players like Mario Kempes, Daniel Passarella and Ubaldo Fillol, Ossie Ardiles and Oscar Ortiz are etched into my mind forever. As a wee boy, I’d never seen anything like it. Swashbuckling, extrovert and exciting, South American football, well, I’d never seen the likes of it.

The night they won the trophy was the night football took hold of me and became the passion of my life. Something happened that night. I already loved the game but sitting down to watch my first World Cup final made me realise how important football was to so many people all over the world.

The blue and white ticker tape, the noise at the Estadio Monumental Stadium in Buenos Aires, Kempes scoring twice, the celebrations, the crowd and the noise, did I mention the noise? As a young child, I’d never seen anything like that. It was genuinely spectacular and spellbinding for me as a young lad that night.

Only a few weeks before I’d been taken to my first ever cup final. Rangers beat Aberdeen 2-1 and won the treble. It was wonderful; it was and still is one of my fondest and incredible memories (I can still see Alex McDonald’s diving header flying into the net) but witnessing a World Cup, even on TV? Well, it had a mysticism and an aura that made me a very passionate Scotland supporter for many, many years.

The national team had remarkably become the first nation ever to be eliminated at the group stages without losing a game four years previously in Germany, even managing to hold Brazil to a goalless draw at that tournament, so going to Argentina held no fears for a bold nation such as ours….

We were atrocious. First up was Peru, the home of Paddington Bear. That was literally all I knew about them. Easy win incoming. Not so; Scotland were on the end of a hiding. A 3-1 defeat at the hands of the South Americans where a fine chap going by the name of  Teofilo Cubillas scored a couple of goals towards the end of the game, bending the ball in such a manner that Alan Rough complained that he’d never seen a ball do that in all his life!

Next up was Iran. A literal third world sporting nation at that time. Yet another horrific performance where we ended up incredibly fortunate to get a point in a one each draw. That iconic picture of Ally MacLeod with his head in his hands in the dugout summed us up.

We’d turned up at that competition believing our own press. We had some fine players, of that there was no doubt. Unfortunately, we hadn’t taken into consideration the possibility that other teams had decent players as well. Such is life, I suppose.

There was even a drug scandal in the midst of this shambles; Willie Johnstone got sent home for failing a drugs test during that World Cup. The entire world had Scotland’s national side as its focus for a day or so. An embarrassing episode, that’s for sure. But a brilliantly funny one now when you look back on it.

However, being Scotland, we then went on to beat the eventual runners up in the final group match. We had to win, and win we did. The only problem was we had to win by three clear goals to progress. We managed to get three-one up, but a ridiculous strike from Johnny Rep killed any hopes of qualifying and the game finished three-two to Scotland.

The Netherlands were a terrific side; they had been the runners up four years previous to West Germany in the 1974 tournament. Scotland won that game three-two, but as is our want, we were on the first flight home from Argentina despite Archie Gemmill scoring the goal that won the goal of the tournament. Just about sums us up that.

This is what Scotland does. From the first ever qualification in 1958 to this day, we fail at the first hurdle. This irks me and pisses me off big time.

My reason for highlighting the 1978 World Cup is simply because it epitomises Scotland as a footballing nation. Ups and downs, rollercoasters, mental gymnastics required and ultimately, glorious failure and wee songs telling the team how proud the tartan army are of the team’s efforts.

Scotland’s performances in this year’s Euro 2020 tournament has only reiterated that point. Managers make mistakes, players make errors in decision making is the be all and end all when you only have three games to secure a place in the knock-out stages.

I’m not going to sit here and write that I’m a fan of Steve Clarke. I am not. I don’t like his demeanour, I’m not fond of his tactics or the way he sets his teams up either, but I’m not going to sit and smash him in an article just for the sake of it simply because he failed to get his team into the next phase. I’m going to attempt to be constructive and maybe try to figure out why it went so badly for Scotland in this competition.

The warm up games provided genuine optimism, I thought. A fine performance earned a draw against the Netherlands, and in fairness, Scotland deserved to win that game, in my opinion. Luxembourg was another win and a confidence builder if, for nothing else, a win’s a win.

The first game of Euro 2020 against The Czech Republic. A good side. In fact, they’re always a good side. A fine footballing nation and a tough game but winnable. Very winnable actually when you see some of the quality Scotland have in their armoury.

Robertson, Tierney, McTominay, Gilmour, McGinn, Gilmour, Armstrong, Adams and Cooper all had very good campaigns for their clubs in the Premier League last season and caught the eye at the highest level of domestic club football. So yes, there was genuine confidence in those players, but overall there are a few positions that needed strengthening both during the competition and now after being eliminated from it.

Andrew Robertson
Scotland s Andrew Robertson looks dejected after the UEFA EURO, EM, Europameisterschaft,Fussball 2020 Group D match at Hampden Park, Glasgow. Picture date: Tuesday June 22, 2021. Issue date: Wednesday June 23, 2021. PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxONLY Copyright: xAndrewxMilliganx 60524731

From the minute I saw Clarke’s team selection, I knew they weren’t winning that game. One upfront. No Gilmour, no Adams, a strange back three and a suspect full-back. Christie playing despite coming off the back of a horrific season. McGregor inexplicably dropped when he’s been in virtually every Scotland team Clarke’s picked.

A weird looking team and a clearly over cautious one as well. That game was always going to be the must win game. Christie should never have started, Gilmour should have, and so should McGregor. McGregor’s at his best when he’s playing with someone who can keep the ball and recycle it. His best performance in a Scotland shirt was when playing alongside Ryan Jack in……  Jack compliments him and vice versa. Both are good players, and they were on the same wavelength when playing together.

Gilmour has plenty of what Ryan Jack has and then some. He is the hottest prospect in British football and has the look of that ‘once in a generation’ player you get the privilege to see. Unfortunately, he sat on the bench for ninety minutes.

Scotland were OK, no more than that. They had a few half chances and were well in the game until the Czechs scored just before half-time.

Scotland created a few chances in the second half but never really looked like taking one while the Czechs were two up early in the second half with that ridiculous goal that’s created a thousand memes of our a wee bit out of position goalkeeper.

It’s not the losing that winds me up; it’s the way we lose. Lumping fifty-yard balls up to Dykes, our back three refusing to come out with the ball and feeding it into midfield, instead passing it back to our dodgy goalkeeper to heave it up the pitch.

Football from a bygone era. Good riddance to that style of football, to be brutally frank. No one wants to watch that, a team that just launches it up in the air to win knockdowns and second balls. Route one football when we have a number of very decent players in our squad.

Next up England at Wembley. A game Scotland had to take something from, and they did. A goalless draw, a good performance and with a bit of composure in front of goal, they might well have won the game. Gilmour started. McGregor in too. Christie dropped, and McTominay put into the back three. It worked; it kept them in the competition and made the final game against Croatia a winner take all match.

I was impressed by that performance. The players were brave on the ball; Gilmour was a stand out on the night. What a talent that boy can become if he keeps doing the right things. Clarke played with two up front with Adams coming in for Christie, and the balance was so much better.

Onto the final group game and a match against the World Cup finalists from three years ago. Pundits suggesting they were past their best, they were slow, and they were there for the taking.

It didn’t pan out like that. Scotland had the first seven minutes of the match and then were promptly put in their place. Croatia controlled the entire match virtually and ran out 3-1 winners.

They were distinctly second best in that game, and after the ninety minutes, Scotland were out of Euro 2020. After losing the first game, they always faced an uphill battle to qualify for the knock-out stages.

As a guy that’s watched us contrive to find ways of exiting major tournaments that boggle the mind, this was more of a damp squib than a glorious failure in truth.

A manager that got his team selection wrong in the opening game, played far too cautiously and decided to play with only one upfront; for me, that’s where the failure starts and ends.

Two games at home in a major competition and taking zero points from either really is a poor reflection of where Scotland actually are. With more than half of Clarkes’ squad coming from the Premier League with six from Celtic, two from Rangers, there’s no excuse for being so disappointing in those games at Hampden.

The Czechs, well, Scotland had beaten them in the two previous games, both home and away, albeit the game in the Czech Republic saw them ravaged by Covid, being forced to play what was essentially a third team. However, beating them at home was a terrific result.

The Croatians had never beaten us until last week. Not ever. They are a good side, but there’s no doubt they’re ageing and not as strong as they were three years ago when reaching the World Cup Final.

Make no mistake, Clarke has the players to find a way through that group. He didn’t, he picked up one point, and Scotland got what they deserved for being so naive and over cautious.

A failure to take the chances they created and inability to stop crosses coming in from both sides, wrong team selections, playing it long to Dykes bypassing our strongest area in midfield continually in those first and final games and a genuine lack of bravery in terms of substitutions and altering tactics are some of the reasons for being unable to be competitive at this level.

Billy Gilmour
Billy Gilmour Chelsea of Scotland is named star of the match during the UEFA 2020 European Championship, EM, Europameisterschaft group match between England and Scotland at Wembley Stadium, London, England on 18 June 2021. PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxUK Copyright: xMarkxHawkinsx PMI-4258-0101

Gilmour should’ve started the opening game; Patterson should’ve been played in all three matches. Fraser and Forrest should’ve seen far more game time, considering we were chasing games and why Turnbull didn’t see a single second of game time is utterly beyond me.

Scotland won’t get out of their World Cup group, both Denmark and Austria are miles better, and we simply can’t beat Isreal, so I just can’t see where the points are coming from.

The country got a bit carried away; that’s understandable when you reach your first major tournament in twenty three years. What isn’t normal is people like Craig Brown whipping the people of this country into a frenzy of delusion by suggesting Clarkes’ team could potentially win the competition. That’s just a wee bit mental, isn’t it?

It’s great to see kids getting involved and the streets awash with men, woman and children all wearing Scotland tops. It’s fantastic to feel the nation get excited and optimistic, but the reality of it is our manager blew it. That was a group Scotland really should be getting out of, particularly when all but two of the third placed teams were getting through and only eight teams from twenty four teams involved were being sent home.

That’s my issue with this. I saw someone post on Twitter, and whoever it was summed it up very well for me. The Twitter post said, “if you hire the Kilmarnock manager, you get Kilmarnock tactics. That’s it in a nutshell.”

The only team in the tournament that hoofed it up the park. As Graeme Souness put it on television after the Croatia defeat, “I’m not here to stick the boot in to my country but that’s not good enough. If you think you can come to a tournament like this and play that kind of football, well, we are light years away from competing at this level.”

Succinctly put and pretty much nail on the head, for me. Clark has a squad that’s more than capable. He has top players; he has creative players too. He has to let them off the leash he has them on and let them express themselves at this level.

I can’t for the life of me figure out why there were so many chances missed. I don’t know why there was so little time for the wingers in the squad, especially when you’re chasing games. I don’t get why Clarke saw O’Donnell as a weak link, then give young Nathan Patterson ten minutes. He did more in that ten than O’Donnell achieved on the previous eighty, I might add.

He played Christie for forty five minutes, then dumped him completely. Forrest got fifteen minutes. Frazer got ten.

I think we have a management team that doesn’t trust their players enough. I don’t see a coaching staff that made their team better in this tournament. What I see is a manager who doesn’t have much belief or adventure. Wembley exception aside, Scotland were very poor, and for me, it wasn’t good enough.

Scotland has the makings of a decent squad; it’s high time he picked the players that are in form and have confidence. How Armstong starts two of the three games having been so poor is mystifying. It’s what we’ve seen from Clarke in his time back up in Scotland, he has his favourites, and he sticks with them regardless. It isn’t good enough at this level.

The perfect example of that is Greg Taylor, Celtic’s third choice left-back. Bolingoli started last season as the first choice left-back, then the Spain incident happened, and he was sent to Turkey. They brought Laxalt in as they knew Taylor isn’t good enough.

He’s Scotland second choice left-back in that squad because he’s playing Tierney at centre half so he can squeeze both him and Robertson into his starting eleven.

Josh Doig
22nd May 2021 Hampden Park, Glasgow, Scotland Scottish Cup Football Final, St Johnstone versus Hibernian Jack Ross Hibernian Manager consoles Josh Doig of Hibernian at full time after their 1-0 loss PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxUK ActionPlus12290355 AlanxRennie

Meanwhile, we have young Josh Doig playing week in week out for Hibs, getting into the SPFL team of the season and is Scotland’s young player of the year. To take Taylor only proves my point, he has his favourites, and he’s loyal to them. Clarke has to stop this, and he has to pick his best players as we aren’t exactly blessed with hundreds to choose from.

Clarke will get this World Cup qualifying campaign, but if he fails, then what? Does he get another qualification attempt for the next Euros in Germany?

Not for me, but I’m pretty sure the SFA will keep him in the job. My concern is he’s got to take the blinkers off, be braver, be less loyal and pick his best and in form players.

Too much of this “our success is getting to the finals” bull does my head in. I get we’re a small nation, but so are Wales, Croatia, North Macedonia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark etc, and they’ve all performed way better than Scotland did without having two games at home, I might add.

In the grand scheme of things, Scotland aren’t that important to me. I’m a Rangers fan, and the issues Rangers have had with the SFA for the last thirty years added to the way the idiots in the tartan army behave toward any Rangers player representing Scotland makes it difficult to get wound up by it, to be honest. However, I found myself getting sucked in a bit, but the team selections and tactics got me shaking my head.

Three games you get to make your mark at a major tournament and Scotland blew it, despite the mass delusion we’ve witnessed over the last week or so.

I’m from an era where Rangers fans made up the predominant percentage of the Scotland support, and I actually think Rangers fans should take their national team back. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for that. Too much water’s passed under the bridge now for that to happen.

My hunch is it’ll be years before we get to another World Cup or European Championships, and this generation will sit back in hindsight in years to come and realise we had a much better side in 2021 than Clarke allowed them to be.

It reminds me of Italia 90, where Andy Roxburgh selected the wrong players, and we lost to Costa Rica. Something switched off in me during that game. Where before I was very much a Scotland fan before, I found myself thinking I won’t be getting as emotionally attached to this ever again.

From Argentina in 1978 to this Euros in 2021, nothing much has changed. For a footballing nation, we underachieve. I genuinely believe that. We don’t do ourselves justice on the world stage, and there have been far too many examples of countries of similar size progressing while we don’t.

Congratulations to Scotland for getting to the Euro 2020, albeit through the back door. But spare me the “wha’s like us” rhetoric such as No Scotland, no party. There’s a party going on, we and our kilts, converse and Buckfast got thrown out days ago for being a bunch of lightweights. No amount of grandstanding or kidding ourselves on is going to change that.

We’re deluded. We aren’t very good, and one point out of nine proves that point. Don’t let the jokers kid you on here. Two games at home, and we lost them both badly. That isn’t good enough for any team, but particularly one that has an oversized ego and a mistaken belief that we are loved by others and are better than we actually are get in the way of those facts.

Until our manager is brave, attacking and utilises his squad properly, we are going nowhere fast. The buck stops with Clarke, and I reckon he’s going to have to be very brave and change his mindset regarding formation, style and including his young players before he’s successful and even then, he’ll need plenty of luck into the bargain.

Back to club football and the reality of Scottish football. The national team underachieves; it always has done. From 1978 to now, nothing much has changed at all. Think about it, and you’ll see I’m right.

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