Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 October 2019

Scotland's European Championship struggles an unwanted reminder of a calamitous past

Steve Clarke's side face Russia battling to avoid a new low

Scotland manager Steve Clarke during training as his side prepare to face Russia. Reuters
Scotland manager Steve Clarke during training as his side prepare to face Russia. Reuters

For those of a certain vintage, it is a fixture to bring back memories of 1982. Russia was part of the Soviet Union then and they met Scotland in their final World Cup group game. With six minutes remaining, the Scottish centre-backs Alan Hansen and Willie Miller collided, allowing Ramaz Shengelia to run away and score. Scotland had found their latest tragi-comic way not to qualify for the knockout stages.

For those of a younger generation, that 2-2 draw stands out for another reason. Scotland were in a major tournament. Because they have not been in this millennium. Thirty-four European countries have played in either a World Cup, a European Championship or both since 2000. Scotland are not one of them.

They lost 2-1 to Russia last month, with manager Steve Clarke coming to the unintentionally damning conclusion that they panicked after taking the lead. Then they lost 4-0 at home to Belgium. They conceded three goals in the first 32 minutes. They let in three to set-pieces. “The group is over in terms of qualification,” said Clarke; a demoralising admission, given there were still four games to go. Only a play-off place, courtesy of winning their Nations League group, offers hope of ending a 22-year wait.

In other respects, the question is if Scotland have hit a new nadir. They have never finished lower than fourth in a qualifying pool. They are fifth in Group I now. “We haven’t hit rock bottom yet,” said their former striker Kris Boyd last month. He was not talking about the prospect of San Marino leapfrogging Clarke’s side, but making a broader point.

Boyd’s diagnosis of the reasons for Scotland’s slide was instructive. “Football in our country is a middle-class sport now,” he said. Yet if poverty made Glasgow and the former mining communities hotbeds of talent, there is a counter-argument, which also reflects badly on the national side.

It is that, if Scotland do not have the wealth of talent they had in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, they do have more than of late. Only Eden Hazard supplied more Premier League assists than Ryan Fraser last season.

John McGinn, a revelation for Aston Villa, has been among the division’s standout midfielders this season. Scott McTominay has been Manchester United’s best midfielder, albeit in a wretched United team. Kenny McLean scored when Norwich City beat Manchester City. John Fleck excelled for Sheffield United against Liverpool. Andrew Robertson became the first Scot to play in a Champions League final win since Paul Lambert in 1997.

Robertson is arguably the world’s best left-back. He has also come in for criticism from Scotland fans, perhaps a consequence of missing the embarrassing defeat to Kazakhstan because of dental surgery – “unfair,” Clarke said – but the captain highlights two issues.

Robertson called his own displays “not good enough” but is not alone in struggling to replicate his club form in his country’s colours; it was an accusation that was levelled at Hansen and Kenny Dalglish. Robertson is around in an era when the two best Scottish footballers are both left-backs: Kieran Tierney, who became the most expensive Scotsman ever when Arsenal paid £25 million (Dh113m) for him, is the other.

Scotland are overly blessed in some departments, short in others. Billy Dodds, another former Scotland forward, identified it. “We need to find strikers and we need to find centre-halves,” he said last month.

Scotland’s four forwards in their squad have a combined seven international goals. Their centre-backs play for Wigan Athletic and Sheffield Wednesday. They can be poor in both penalty boxes and while Clarke has a fine record as a defensive coach, Scotland have been shambolic at the back. As Miller, despite that 1982 mix-up the sort of centre-back Scotland would love, said recently, these are “worrying times”.

Updated: October 9, 2019 12:52 PM

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