Desmond Kane

Scotland can revel in pleasurable Prague

Desmond Kane

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Scotland's visit to the venerable city of Prague provides unbounded opportunity. The national team will arrive in the Czech Republic to park the bus, while the fans park their backsides in the boozers in and around the country's storied capital. Team and supporters in perfect unison, certainly. Good times all round? Perhaps.

Visiting such a seat of learning in Eastern Europe provides the chance to meander down memory lane with the Tartan Army, a doughty, haggard, merry and somewhat hairy band of football explorers. Being a wide-eyed, partially hammered footsoldier with the Tartan Army abroad can be a liberating but, all at once, rousing experience. Such lingering memories are never dulled by the advancing of years.

The Czech Republic's capital was cheap when some dishevelled members of the Tartan Army last limped in there on competitive business for a European Championship qualifier in 1999.

Amid the revelry, there was a rare outbreak of natural born Scotsmen buying rounds for complete strangers. Aberdonians reaching for a couple of shillings to buy drink for a fellow fan is a wondrous sight indeed, as much a joy to behold today as any grainy rerun of wee Archie Gemmill cutting open the Netherlands in 1978.

Several thousand Scottish fans marched to the home of Sparta Prague, and watched in amazement as their team embarked on a 2-0 lead against a home side still blossoming from losing 2-1 to Germany in the Euro 96 final.

The Czechs, containing dependable figures in Pavel Nedved, Patrick Berger, Karel Poborsky and the gigantic Jan Koller, were a football team as opulent as the Mozart Museum. They staggered before recovering to record a late 3-2 success aided by the dome of Koller.

Trying to unearth a proper "bar" in Prague afterwards was difficult. Strip clubs seemed to be all the rage. Not that grown men in kilts were complaining.

Water cannons were on standby at the start of the week in Prague before relieved local authorities realised they could down the visiting hordes quicker by feeding them copious amounts of Staropramen.

One remembers visiting a "bar" where a large gathering of teeming Scottish clansmen from the Highlands and Islands had assembled to get their bearings.

Upstairs Berger and Koller were signing autographs for the Scottish fans after their side's victory, downstairs a stripper was stuffing extra cash in her thong for donning a Scotland shirt and a Jimmy Hat before what felt like a couple of Panzer divisions of the Tartan Army.

Scotland lost to the Czechs in Prague, but not the side plot of getting stinking drunk, singing songs and celebrating glorious defeat. This has become a familiar theme to a country bereft of an appearance at a major finals for 12 years. All good things must come to an end.

The worrying thing about this particular expedition is that Scotland travel to Prague in expectation, rather than with simply the whiff of hope or whisky in their nostrils.

Everything is easy on the eye in Prague. The ugly women in Prague are beautiful and the food measures up to some coronary-activating Scottish standards in that they prefer it meaty and fried. The architecture remains formidable, but the football is not so tasty.

Like Scotland, their football is creaking these days. A home loss to Lithuania has given Scotland the chance to make some sizable strides away from them in attaining second place and a play-off berth from a mediocre five-team section in which world champions Spain will surely emerge unscathed.

If there is a jolly old time to be had in and around Wenceslas Square, there is a very makeable three points to be gleaned from the Synot Tip Arena, a ground rebranded from Scotland's defeat there under Craig Brown, a coach who could get his country a 0-0 draw with any side. 

Scotland may not require Alan Whicker to give them a guided tour, but these European qualifying fixtures have never been for culture seekers, nor for the faint hearted.

If Scotland can depart Prague with at least a draw, they almost get a free shy at taking down Spain on Tuesday. Funnier things have happened in football. The world champions lost to Switzerland in the opening game of the World Cup finals, but those calculations are for another day.

The easier part will be troubling the Czechs. Some salivating newspaper reports from Scotland suggest the national manager Craig Levein will opt for a barmy 4-2-2-2 formation, whatever that means.

Kris Boyd has been dropped from the squad after contributing little or virtually nothing to the late, late 2-1 win over Liechtenstein last month before embarking on a dry run of one goal in eight games for Middlesbrough. He was hardly going to be a natural choice for this mission.

It has been suggested Kenny Miller, a figure with 10 goals for Rangers in the Scottish Premier League, will similarly be chopped from the starting line-up on the cusp of winning a 50th cap. That may sound bizarre, but may be more logical when one recalls how Miller toiled for goals, if not energy, in the 0-0 draw in Lithuania in the opening match of the section.

Levein will and should set up defensively for both matches. Being at home or away is of minimal significance. He may resemble Clark Kent, but he is hardly Superman. Whatever gets you through the night, as they say.

If he is in need of inspiration, Levein could do worse than study how Rangers went about departing Old Trafford with a 0-0 draw in the Champions League. Scotland are likely to end up with 4-5-1 formation, because that works to some effect. Ask Brown. 

He was given a standing ovation in a press conference by saying the Czechs were stronger than Germany 11 years ago, but Scotland can prove they can cope with them on Friday. There is no Nedved or Koller. Their golden generation has gone.  

If they use the ball well on the break, Scotland can move six points clear of the Czech Republic after three games. The world may not yet be theirs, but it will be still be quite a chasm.

If they lose, there are always the strippers and the Jimmy Hats to fall back on, but it will be a notable chance lost amid such couthy delights.

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