'Liverpool, Arsenal, Man Utd and two Motherwell players!' Scotland stand-out Declan Gallagher opens up on 'life-changing' experience

The impact of a football nation reborn at the highest international level has been evident in all corners of Scotland these past few days.

Declan Gallagher (right) drapes himself round Scott McTominay as the pair get lost in the elation of Scotland's penalty-shoot progress to a first major finals in 23 years (Photo by Nikola Krstic / SNS Group)
Declan Gallagher (right) drapes himself round Scott McTominay as the pair get lost in the elation of Scotland's penalty-shoot progress to a first major finals in 23 years (Photo by Nikola Krstic / SNS Group)

Crikey, it feels as if the entire populace has had a couple of vertebrae added so tall are folk walking. Ending a 23-year wait for the men to qualify for a major finals will have that effect…

It is a wonder that Declan Gallagher, 6ft 4ins in his stocking soles before the impossibly dramatic Euro 2020 play-off victory for Steve Clarke’s men in Serbia on Thursday, can still negotiate door frames. The Motherwell centre-back accepts his existence has passed into a new dimension because of what unfolded in Stadion Rajko Mitic.

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“Already this is life changing for me. It’s just amazing,” said the 29-year-old, who, like his team-mates, must refocus for the Nations League encounter in Slovakia that could clinch another such group first place. “I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever see a major tournament with my country. Here we are, we have just qualified and I don’t think it has even sunk in yet. It’s a career high for me. It’s not going to get much better than that.”

Clarke’s faith

Gallagher does himself a disservice. His towering displays for his nation, and his superb shackling of the apparently unplayable bruiser Aleksandar Mitrovic, suggests his upward trajectory under Clarke need not plateau ahead of Scotland facing England, the Czech Republic and Croatia in next summer’s finals.

There were many of us who considered that Liam Cooper and Scott McKenna could have had claims on Gallagher’s berth for Belgrade courtesy of operating in more exalted set-ups than the Scottish top flight. How wrong we were, and how right Clarke has been with his defensive blend that also includes Gallagher’s club team-mate Stephen O’Donnell. And how much Gallagher believes perceptions of the Scotland national team can be changed by reaching a finals, finally.

“It was massive,” Gallagher said of Clarke’s faith in him. “Scotty has got his move to Nottingham Forest and is doing really well, scored the other week. Coop is the Leeds captain. They are two great players. To be picked ahead of them is a massive honour and it feels great that the manager trusts me enough to do that. I was happy I could repay him with such a good performance. That’s me six unbeaten in all my appearances and we are on a nine-game unbeaten run. It’s amazing for me and the country.

“When you look at the back five last night it was Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and two Motherwell players! But to be fair it meant as much to each of those guys as it did to me and Stephen. Regardless of who we play for at club level this was huge and I think you could tell that from the celebrations at the end. You saw the emotion from Ryan Christie, Scott McTominay. Everybody just wanted it so much. To get there and get over the finish line to a major tournament is massive, such a great achievement for Scotland – we are back to being a proud nation again.

Stronger than people think

“A lot of people were looking at the quality of Serbia and who their players play for but look at our team – three of the defence play for some of the biggest clubs in England. But John McGinn also plays for a top Premier League club and then you have Callum McGregor and Ryan Jack who play for the top teams in Scotland. So, realistically, our team is as strong if not stronger than the Serbian team. Sometimes you get a wee bit of negativity that comes along with Scotland simply because we haven’t reached a final in so long. People fall into the trap of thinking everyone is better than us. But I think we have proved now that we can compete against some of the best teams in the world. Serbia are a great team, they brought a Real Madrid player off the bench [in Luka Jovic], so that shows their quality. It was just great to see the game out.”

The greatness of the evening in Serbia was in no small part derived from the unselfconscious, utterly joyful celebrations from a truly bonded band of brothers. The wide-eyed David Marshall pleading for confirmation his penalty save was legit, the on-field pile-ons thereafter, the teary, deeply-affecting outpourings from Ryan Christie, and the dancing delights derived from adapting Baccara’s ‘Yes Sir I Can Boogie’ and Whigfield’s ‘Saturday Night’ are luscious images the entire nation will feast on forever. In serving up these treasured snapshots, the Scotland players threw off their professional status to become proxies for ecstatic countryfolk forced to release pent-up emotions/frustrations from confines of living rooms in this otherwise colourless pandemic age. As passionate punters, Clarke’s men excelled as much as they did as international performers.

“The penalties were nerve-wracking to be fair,” said Gallagher. “But Kenny [McLean] scored the [fourth] penalty and his next words when he came back over were ‘Marshy’s saving this one, I’m getting ready to run!’ That’s exactly what happened. Kenny was halfway there before the rest of us because he knew it was going to be a save. It was amazing just to see Marshy saving it. Unbelievable, and oh what a night it was. I think that the Marsh conga [for Saturday Night] was one of the better songs that came out… It was a great experience and one that will live on in the memory of all the boys that were here. All the boys and the staff together, it was just a great night.”

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