The 11 sub-plots in greatest Scotland football tale in years
Scotland’s qualification for Euro 2020 after a wait of 22 years was in itself one of the greatest Scottish sports stories of recent times.
Perhaps only Andy Murray’s men’s singles win at Wimbledon win can beat it in terms of lifting the mood of the nation. What sets it apart from Murray’s triumph is the number of sub-plots included. Here are 11 talking points after a famous result ...
1) David Marshall: A 16-year overnight sensation. 16 years, two months, three weeks and three days to be precise. That’s how long it’s been since the goalkeeper made his Scotland debut against Hungary in August 2004. He’s never let Scotland down when called upon and is now the undisputed Scotland No.1 under Steve Clarke. He’ll turn 36 before he appears at Euro 2020, all being well. What a tale of personal endurance. He ended the summer looking for a new club after Wigan Athletic went bankrupt. He’ll end the year looking forward to a first major finals appearance having twice been the match winner for Scotland while conceding just once in his last four games, two of them including 30 minutes of extra-time.
2) Leigh Griffiths: Few have experienced such an up and down year as Griffiths, who scored a hat-trick on his last Celtic appearance before lockdown prior to piling on the pounds and earning the wrath of Neil Lennon. He is still trying to establish himself in Lennon’s plans now and was the subject of scathing criticism from pundit Chris Sutton for being out of shape in a short cameo against Sparta Prague just over a week ago. Seven days later he stepped off the bench to score a nerve-jangling penalty in the shoot-out. He didn’t have to be fit for that. It was his first touch of the night. There is no surer striker of a ball in Scottish, perhaps British, football.
3) Oli McBurnie: No-one at home could have watched Oli McBurnie walk in that slightly shambling style of his towards the penalty spot to take the third penalty – with the shoot-out score locked at 2-2 – and not fear the worst. After all, he’d already been criticised for his failure to hold the ball up in extra-time, most notably by Michael Stewart. McBurnie’s later response on Twitter? ‘helmet’. He was tweeting from a strong position, having dismissed the many doubters by stroking home his kick in nerveless fashion despite knowing his relationship with the Tartan Army would have been severed forever had he missed. Clearly a popular member of the squad, now to score his first Scotland goal.
4) Stephen O’Donnell: He doesn’t currently have a club after January. Any takers? There will be a few in the queue now, although he will surely re-sign with Motherwell in order to ensure he plays regularly prior to the Euros. The ugly duckling in the side, metaphorically speaking (we know he’s among the most handsome in reality). Like Declan Gallagher, more of whom later, he has slotted into a side containing players from Manchester United and Liverpool as well as Celtic and Rangers. Many wondered if Steve Clarke could possibly risk starting him on such an important night, however well he had equipped himself in last month’s games. Clarke of course knew he could having worked with the player at Kilmarnock. And no one should regard him as a non-established international player. He now has 15 caps.
5) Declan Gallagher: A stand-out candidate for Scotland international player of the year. Gallagher has come into the heart of a defence that has conceded just one goal in four games and has not looked out of place. More than that, he’s augmented the backline with his no-nonsense approach to defending. Aleksandar Mitrovic certainly won’t want to come up against him any time soon. No-one would have thought he’d become a Scotland regular a little over 12 months ago when he came in as Scott McKenna’s central defensive partner against Cyprus last November. Now he’s keeping the erstwhile first-choice centre-half out of the team. It is an astounding rise to prominence from the former Dundee and Livingston defender.
6) Scott McTominay: He was the focus of national debate just a few short weeks ago, although it was less debate and more a collectively formed opinion: he cannot play right centre-half. Clarke trialled this new three at the back approach against Israel in September and there was almost universal condemnation. Why waste McTominay there, where he was clearly uncomfortable? Clarke is not the type of manager to abandon his plans after one outing and so he played McTominay again there against Czech Republic. The Manchester United player has shown admirable willingness to play out of position while becoming a lynchpin of the side.
7) Alex McLeish: It was good to see McLeish looking in such fine fettle in a video clip released on Twitter shortly before kick-off against Serbia. He sent his good wishes to the team while expressing a wish he could have been a part of it. Well, he was part of it. McLeish, for all the criticism that eventually came his way, secured Scotland’s place in the play-offs by finishing top of their Nations League group at the end of 2018. He also convinced Scott McTominay to choose Scotland over England. It was the first ‘victory’ of his second spell in charge and followed a hair-raising drive through the “beast from the east” storm that hit the country in early 2018 in order to meet the player. McLeish also gave a debut to O’Donnell.
8) Lyndon Dykes: Is that statue in Moniaive up yet? Perhaps no single player has been as pivotal to Scotland’s success these last few games. He was not even registered to play for Scotland at the start of this year. As recently as last October, after his goal and outstanding performance in Livingston’s 2-0 win over Celtic, he said he would probably have to pick Australia when asked about his international ambitions – “if they come calling”. Thankfully they didn’t. At least not before the wily Clarke employed his persuasive ways and convinced Dykes to pick Scotland, with the QPR player’s father having hailed from Moniaive, a town in Dumfries and Galloway. The 25 year-old brings both intelligence and power to the front line and has redefined the way Scotland play.
9) England v Scotland: Amid the delirium that greeted qualification, the little matter of a clash with the Auld Enemy has been slightly overlooked. That’s understandable. Scotland could have been due to play San Marino, the Faroes and Luxembourg at the Euros, and it would not have dulled any of the excitement. But it’s thrilling to remember that this date at Wembley awaits, 24 years almost to the day since they last played in the Euros. The England team Twitter account has already tweeted a clip of Gazza scoring in that match while welcoming confirmation there will be a re-match.
10) Generosity of others and THAT Ryan Christie interview: It’s been nice to read the messages from non-Scots, those such as former England striker Peter Crouch, who tweeted: “Congratulations Scotland! I know you hate us but I was pleased for you”. Former Oasis lead singer Liam Gallagher was among those stopped short by that interview given by Ryan Christie to Sky Sports’ Luke Shanley that quickly went viral. “Ryan Christie what a lad,” tweeted new Scotland fan Gallagher, who now knows what to say when asked to spell his name: “Like Declan Gallagher”. Meanwhile, Gary Lineker was quick to offer his applause. “Well played Scotland. Great stuff as Marshall is the hero.” He was also quick to tweet clips of Scottish celebrations, including David Marshall leading his teammates through the “David Marshall conga”.
11) Slovakia v Scotland: There’s still another couple of games to be played, anyone remember? This is the first, as soon as Sunday lunchtime. Scotland were due to have arrived in Bratislava on Friday night but then the itinerary might well have been torn up following the post-match celebrations in Belgrade. As for Slovakia, they might still be in Belfast, where they secured their own Euro 2020 place with a 2-1 win over Northern Ireland. Clarke certainly won’t lose sight of this being another very important fixture. A win could go a long way to securing a play-off place for the next World Cup. Of course, rather than have 22 hungover men kicking a ball around for 90 minutes, the ideal way to decide the match would be a penalty shootout. Agreed?