To grasp the magnitude of Scotland’s momentous qualification for the 2021 European Championships, one has to go back 22 years to our last qualification for a major international tournament. Tony Blair was Prime Minister, Titanic won best picture at the Oscars and I, well, hadn’t been born.
We’ve come close before, arguably with better squads, but in typical Scottish fashion always found a way to fail. In these 22 years we’ve fallen victim to refereeing scandals and conceding last minute goals, all while the other home nations enjoyed success at the highest level. This week in Belgrade was an opportunity to end two decades of disappointment in a national team capable of transcending Scottish football’s chronic infighting.
Albeit an excellent opportunity for us to progress, I was under no illusion that we would lose; we had to, success on this level was uncharacteristic and verged on unpatriotic. Much to my surprise, we started the first half well, appearing to silence much of the threat from Serbia’s creative midfield and bullish striker Mitrovic, whilst Dykes and Christie proved a handful upfront for us. Reflecting the tightest of margins between the teams, half time arrived with the game still goalless.
Manager Steve Clarke doesn’t strike me as the most inspiring of coaches; I would argue that anyone who plays five at the back doesn’t like football, yet whatever he said at half time gave the squad a lift. Within minutes, Robertson blazed over the bar after good work from Australian, I mean Scottish, striker Dykes. Then on the 51st minute, Callum McGregor found a pocket of space in midfield before slipping a deft pass to Christie. The Celtic midfielder managed to turn on the edge of Serbia’s box before placing the ball into the bottom corner, with help from the post. Scotland 1, Serbia nil.
Was there hope? Could we actually qualify? For a brief moment it certainly seemed that way, yet the adulation from the goal was arguably the worst thing that could have happened, for my blood pressure at least. All we had to do was prevent Serbia from scoring for another 40 minutes. Easier said than done.
Again to my surprise, for the next half hour we continued to cause Serbia’s defence problems whilst maintaining a solidity of our own. Serbia had chances to score, but David Marshall in Scotland’s net was largely unchallenged. My heart rate now sitting at around 150bpm, with ten minutes left to play, Clarke made substitutions in an effort to see out the game. With emphasis on bringing on some big men to defend at set pieces, McBurnie and Paterson replaced Dykes and Christie. Rather unintended though, were the consequences this had for our ability to keep the ball and kill the game. We lacked any attacking quality and had resorted to hoofing the ball clear any chance we could get. Consequently, Serbia created more chances, grew in confidence, and looked like scoring.
With thirty seconds to play, and one hand on qualification, Serbia won a corner. Tadic’s cross was met by Real Madrid’s Luka Jovic who headed into the ground, the ball bouncing into the top corner of the Scotland net. Scotland 1, Serbia 1. For f*** sake.
With the 90 minutes finishing all square, we entered extra time, yet you’d be hard pressed to find any Scot who genuinely believed we would still win and qualify. The nation felt consigned to another failure, this one more excruciating than before. For the next half hour of extra time, we seemed to play how the nation felt: gutted, exhausted, and grasping at any remnants of hope. Thankfully, however, Serbia weren’t able to build on their momentum; we had held on, but now faced the lottery of a penalty shootout.
Before that night, Scotland had never missed a penalty in a shootout. Yes, we’d only played in one, but thats not important. Leigh Griffiths stepped up first and scored, then did Serbia. McGregor scored, so did Serbia. McTominay scored, so did Serbia. McBurnie Scored, so did Serbia. We now entered sudden death, Kenny McLean had to score, he did. Serbian striker Mitrovic had to score or Scotland would win. He went to his right. Marshall went the same way. He saved it. Marshall waited on confirmation from the referee and, just as it arrived, the Cardiff City goalkeeper was mobbed by the celebrating squad. Scotland had done it. We’d won.
Scotland had qualified, in the most quintessentially Scottish manner; David Marshall had etched himself into folklore as the hero who sent us to the EUROs. In many ways, the match itself was Scottish football personified: there was pre-match pessimism, brief naive optimism, last-gasp heartbreak, then immense joy. I can’t help but feel, like Ryan Christie said post-match, that the monkey is off our backs now. Perhaps in another two decades, we will look back on last night as the catalyst for years of success. It seems fitting, too, that our most important victory in decades came at a time when there is not currently much to be happy about.
It is perhaps romantic of me to say that last night’s result transcends football, but that won’t stop me. Religious, political, geographic and wealth divides often cause us Scots to look inwards for individual identity; yet I, like millions, woke up today feeling more proud than ever to be Scottish. For that, we have Steve Clarke and his men to thank.