Alan Pattullo: It's simple - win in Serbia and give Scottish football what it craves
It seemed appropriate that a thick fog had rolled in as Scotland began preparations in Edinburgh ahead of such a potentially defining match later this week.
It’s necessary to peer back through the mists of time to recall the last time Scotland fans knew how it felt to have qualified for a major finals. It was over 23 years ago, Autumn 1997. Scotland 2 Latvia 0.
Although Craig Brown, the stickler that he is, urged restraint from his players, there was little of that from the Tartan Army that afternoon at Celtic Park.
They were bold enough to presume Spain would take care of the Faroes later that evening and so ensure Scotland qualified as best runners-up across the nine qualifying groups. And the Spaniards did, though not before supplying Scotland fans with reason for some anxiety after the Faroes made it 2-1 with a late goal.
The beauty about the assignment facing Scotland in Serbia on Thursday night is how black and white it is. It’s simple. Win, be it in the 90 minutes, after extra time or by penalty kicks, and Scotland will provide a new generation of fans with a novel sensation – how wondrous it feels to be heading for a major tournament, in this case a European Championship finals. It will be only the third-ever time Scotland have qualified for the finals of this particular tournament.
All in our hands
There will be no waiting for results from elsewhere. It is a one-off fixture, so, unlike in the Euro 2004 play-off against the Dutch in 2003, there is no potentially confusing element of knowing there is something to defend, in that case a 1-0 first leg lead. That hope had been extinguished by half-time.
While the aim of the mission is straightforward – victory, and nothing less – the challenge is not. It is far from simple. There are many places in Europe one would select to try and go and win a football match other than Belgrade. While some bookmakers make the Scots long odds to progress, there is something firmly in the visitors’ favour: no supporters.
However much the Tartan Army would have made their presence felt, and of course they would have, the atmosphere would still have felt very partisan at the 53,000 capacity Rajko Mitic stadium.
Scotland would prefer not to have to travel, particularly given all the attendant complications in these Covid-19 times. Otherwise, it just is a patch of grass, a football match, and two fairly evenly matched teams – Serbia, at 30, are 15 places higher than Scotland. Indeed, the Scots, currently eight matches unbeaten, have form on their side. Serbia have won just once in their last six matches - last month’s surprise play-off semi-final victory in Norway.
A nation holds its breath
The players all know how much is at stake. A nation will be sitting at home watching. Admirably, Sky Sports have listened to the plea from Scotland fans to show the game on a free-to-air platform, which will now be the case.
It is down to the players, who gathered at Edinburgh’s Oriam complex minus the injured Ryan Fraser and Grant Hanley. One photograph showed Leigh Griffiths laughing with manager Steve Clarke. The Celtic striker has lived a life and a half but was just seven years-old when Scotland qualified for France ’98.
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