Alan Pattullo: Time for new heroes - as Scotland stay calm ahead of Serbia storm
Only two call-offs from a 27-strong squad. Rangers manager Steven Gerrard happily replacing one of his players at half-time in order to aid the Scotland effort and Sky Sports electing to show the game on a free-to-air channel after a campaign by supporters.
It must be a big match. It must be a moment Scotland have been waiting for since the last dream died amid the gutters and alcohol fumes at Hampden Park against Italy 13 years ago.
On the eve of a latest appointment with destiny, tonight's Euro 2020 play-off final against Serbia, Steve Clarke seemed unflappable. “Honestly, as we approach the game now, I’m perfectly calm,” said the manager. “I think we have prepared as well as we can prepare.”
‘Everyone is really positive’
Ensuring they reached this stage was the priority. Last month’s shoot-out win over Israel meant mission accomplished. The next aim was to maintain the momentum, which was achieved with subsequent victories over Slovakia and Czech Republic.
“We spoke about getting to this match in the best shape possible, with a good bit of positivity around us, and we’ve managed to do that,” said Clarke. “You can see that with the public and the media - everyone’s really positive about it. Hopefully we can do ourselves justice on the night.”
Mercifully, Scotland appear to have avoided the ever-present danger that is Covid-19 in the run-up to this set of fixtures, with Nations League fixtures against Israel and Slovakia falling in quick succession after Serbia. Whatever happens in Belgrade, life very quickly has to move on.
Clarke emphasised this requirement yesterday. Still, there's no escaping the opportunity tonight represents. Those who feature will inherit a responsibility some have responded to magnificently in the past and others have struggled to bear.
The tension ...
Don Masson is one who handled the pressure when he slotted home a penalty with 11 minutes left of a must-win World Cup qualifier against Wales in 1977. The former midfielder’s autobiography, published last month, recently dropped through the letter box.
In it he recounts that unbearably tense Anfield spot-kick. A chapter headed Staying Cool To Clinch Our World Cup Ticket includes an exhilarating depiction of the sort of scenario that may well await a current Scotland player this evening at Red Star Belgrade’s Rajko Mitic stadium – minus around 40,000 Scots, the number estimated to have made it into Anfield for what was, ostensibly, a Wales home game.
“It was a feeling I could never have expected to experience,” Masson writes in Still Saying Sorry, the title referencing a later penalty against Peru that wasn’t executed quite so adeptly.
“Let’s be honest, how could I seriously allow myself to think that at one point in my life – however briefly – I would be the most popular Scotsman in the world? At the precise moment when I scored a crucial goal in our World Cup qualifier against Wales, I reckon that’s where I figured in the rankings.
“Over the years, people by the thousands have regularly painted a picture for me,” Masson continues. “They remember very clearly where they were and what they were doing at that moment of high drama. Huddled together in the pubs and bars, factories and front rooms, most have said they were struggling to cope…”
Of course, there will be little huddling together this evening except among those from the same household and such scenes certainly won’t be occurring in pubs and bars. The hope is that any hugging inspired by events in Belgrade is due to an eruption of joy and not from a need to provide one another with comfort.
Time for heroes
Someone may well follow in the footsteps of Masson. Someone may well be left with Scotland’s destiny in their hands. It could be Ryan Christie who assumes the Masson role from 12 yards out. There could be as many as five Scots charged with scoring from the spot in the event of the scores being level after extra-time, perhaps more if sudden death comes into play.
It might be goalkeeper David Marshall who excels, as he did against Israel last month when blocking Eran Zahavi’s effort at an empty Hampden Park.
The extraordinary circumstances must be acknowledged. The Tartan Army remain at base. The players truly are representing their country a long way from home and in a country where Scotland were comprehensively beaten under Gordon Strachan four years ago.
It’s strange the way it might work out. Bona fide greats such as Strachan and Alex McLeish have failed to get Scotland to a major finals although the latter will have played a part should long awaited glory come against Serbia, having completed the first part of the job by steering the side to the play-offs.
He was helped by former international midfielder Peter Grant and Tartan Army talisman James McFadden. Clarke’s backroom team is composed of a passionate Geordie in John Carver and an amiable Irishman in Steven Reid. It’s an unlikely mix.
Legendary status awaits
Clarke’s six caps spread across seven years is a long way from Roll of Honour territory and yet it's he who now has the chance to provide Scotland fans with what they’ve craved for so long. Although it is easy to believe Clarke when he stresses it is not something he wastes any time thinking about, there will be no argument about legendary status then.
“I’ve never been one to covet that,” he said. “Even as a player I liked to be a wee bit under the radar. I like to be appreciated by the people around about me. They are the people that I work with. If I get that respect and that appreciation then that is good enough for me.”