Scotland have just won three-in-a-row at an empty Hampden - do we keep the Tartan Army away for good?
I’ve got an idea. It’s pretty radical and out-there and I sense you’re not going to like it. In fact I can already see that the tin badges from tours of duty - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania - are falling off your Glengarry and that the tall, proud feather is drooping. Here goes anyway: how about Scotland carry on playing games with no fans present?
I knew you’d hate it. The famous Tartan Army, NFI. It flies in the face of the old Jock Stein profundity: “You play a football match without fans, you’ve got nothing.” It’s shooting ourselves in the foot when we’ve insisted for 22 long years now that the finals of a major international tournament need us to get the party started.
Well, let’s be honest, five World Cups and five Euros have, without kilted Scots, not seemed like a waste of time, been played to completion and, from our metaphorical vantage-point, standing on tip-toes on a couple of upturned beer crates and peering through a crack in the fence, looked colourful and fun.
And let’s be honest, Steve Clarke’s team in those last three games have done pretty well in a deserted, echoey Hampden. A first-ever penalty shootout won. The top table within sight once more. Dogged, doughty performances each time.
I suppose the question I’m asking is: would these performances - and outcomes - have been different with a crowd? The issue of what fans bring to games has been much debated during Covid. Freak results - Aston Villa 7, Liverpool 2 and Manchester United 1, Spurs 6 - have been partly explained away by the surreal atmosphere of the empty stadia. Incredible to think that millionaires might only have reacted to goals raining in on them from hearing some raucous noise, but there you go.
How, though, would Hampden have reacted to Israel dominating possession in that Euros playoff and seeming more likely to score? Would the crowd have got nervous, transferring the jitters to our players?
The same could be said of the Nations League game against the Czech Republic when the visitors were missing those sitters. Scotland right now are playing a system which requires supporters to show patience. Football fans, not just Scots, aren’t always able to do this.
Even if supporters are not consciously trying not to shout through agitation but as a purposeful attempt at encouragement, players can get carried away by the roars and neglect their primary function, chase after a ball they should leave. Managers have spoken a lot about how crowd noise alters games, also the effect of no noise.
And what of a player like Oli McBurnie, voicing some nervousness before this sequence of matches - would he have come off the bench and done a decent job of holding up the ball, striking the woodwork twice, if some of those hard-to-please foot soldiers who’ve lost patience with misfiring strikers in the past had been in their usual places?
We’ll never know the answers to these questions. The Tartan Army will muster again eventually. When they do they’ll be happily reunited with a team who, despite Stein’s wisdom, didn’t seem to mind the silence of the fans.
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