How the SPFL Championship laid foundations for Scotland's Euro 2020 journey
Much is made of Andy Robertson’s storied and swift ascent from a kid at Queen’s Park to Champions League glory with Liverpool. Now he can add another chapter in restoring Scotland to the European Championships. But his is not the only lower-league glory story.
Steve Clarke’s successful Scotland side has input from the very top of the English and European game, a core of top flight SPFL players – and a deep-rooted foundation in Scottish football’s second tier.
The Championship is stamped on the football passport of many of the successful squad – including four of Thursday night’s key players.
As well as Robertson’s fledgling days flying up the flanks of Hampden in League Two with Queen’s Park, Declan Gallagher and Lyndon Dykes also established themselves away from the spotlight ahead of unlikely international careers while John McGinn and Leigh Griffiths tore up the first division en route to more predictable international honours. For Scott McKenna, it was just the catalyst he needed in his career.
It’s far from the glamour of England and the Euro’s, but the second tier grounding on Steve Clarke’s side cannot be overlooked and gives hope to the hundreds cutting their teeth away from the Premiership glare.
What has made lower league players capable of making the grade on the international scene though? Talent for sure, but hard work beyond the second tier has propelled their careers from functional and potential in the first division, to fully fledged, dependable international hopes.
It was, however, in the second tier they were given a chance, took it, and kicked on.
And if the players below have made the step, how many more in the Scottish second tier are capable of doing similar?
Championship appearances: 128
Gallagher’s Scotland international route is the road less travelled – a beacon of hope to the many, like Andy Robertson, released from a big club and restarting through the lower leagues.
After leaving Celtic with no appearances outwith a loan spell in Stranraer, a drop to Clyde in the old Scottish Third Division earned a move to Dundee. After a passable if unremarkable time at Dens Park it was in the second tier where Gallagher settled into football with Livingston.
On the field the defender was a dependable bright spot under David Hopkin when the Lions went down to League One – but off-the-field an assault conviction derailed his promise and career.
Since his sentence, release and return to Livingston, Gallagher excelled, helping the Almondvale club to Premiership promotion and establishing himself there. A move to Motherwell followed.
From a functional first division defender in West Lothian, two years later he’s an unbeaten Scotland centre-back of six games – a cap-count that looks in little danger of remaining in single figures.
Championship appearances: 128
If it wasn’t for his chance in the Championship, where would he be? Where would Scotland be?
The Australian schoolboy with a promising youth scoring record earned a deal with Queen of the South through local contacts of his parents, from Dumfriesshire.
Initially a gangly forward who ran the channels, Dykes played wide in his formative time at Palmerston, playing second fiddle to Stephen Dobbie, scoring just four times in 40 appearances as Queens sat in mid-division 2015-16.
What he has always shown though, is potential. He built on an unremarkable first season with eight in 44 the following season and then 10 in 52 – persuading Livingston to move and Scotland to sit up and take notice.
After moulding to the rigours of the Championship, he slotted into the Premiership with 12 goals in 33 games and combative hold-up play had the attention of many in Scotland – including Rangers, Celtic and the national team where he has become another who has taken the international step in his stride, much like Gallagher.
Championship appearances: 90
McGinn emerged onto the scene with St Mirren, but his real coming of age came with Hibs in the Championship. While stepping down in league status the then 21-year-old stepped up to the demands of the size of the Easter Road club, and duly upped his performances.
Almost 100 games in Paisley brought four goals, his trademark midfield dynamism was honed over two seasons in the Championship and reaped 10 in 90 with Hibs – and a Scottish Cup winners’ medal – before going on to impress even more back in the top flight, before an inevitable move to England and Aston Villa.
A stand-out player in the second tier – he’s now regarded highly in one of the world’s best leagues.
Championship appearances: 117
Last night’s late substitute and first penalty-taker, Griffiths attracted attention as a precocious wiry First Division forward at Livingston. His speed, and goal ratio of almost one in every two matches, took him to big-spending Dundee, also in the second tier back in 2009 where he maintained his strike-rate at Dens Park and persuaded Wolves to snap him up and propel him to the big-time.
Since then and a similar strike-rate at boyhood club Hibs, a big move to Celtic followed leading on to Griffiths’ finest moment on the international stage – memorably scoring twice against England in 2017.
Championship appearances: 17
Loaned from Aberdeen to League One Ayr then Alloa in the second tier, there wasn’t much sign of McKenna’s international capabilities at either – until a second stint at Somerset Park and 13 games converted the admissible stopper into a defender of distinction.
Upon his return to Pittodrie the centre-back took enormous strides, built on his Championship experience and earned a big money move to England as well as the regard of many to be the country’s best option at central defence.
A Championship kick-start to a career if ever there was one.