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Scotland’s relationship with the later stages of major football tournaments has been typified by melodrama of Neapolitan intensity and these Euros have not disrupted the trend. This is the nation which declined an invitation to the 1950 World Cup finals on the haughty premise that they had finished second to England in the British Championship, which the Scottish Football Association regarded as a superior competition.
Persuaded to suppress their prejudice and submit a team to the 1954 finals, the SFA dispatched a squad of 13 players, although they were permitted 22. They were duly humiliated 7-0 by Uruguay, the Scotland manager having resigned hours before the match.
The 1974 World Cup saw the Scots become the first team ever to be knocked out without losing a game. In 1978 they beat the Netherlands by the Archie Gemmill goal regarded as one of the greatest ever seen in the competition, but were eliminated on goal difference again.
The greatest Scottish managers – Jock Stein and Alex Ferguson – could not reverse the tide of destiny in 1982 and 1986 and further first round exits followed in 1990 and 1998.
The European Championship provided no relief. After five attempts, starting in 1968, Scotland made the finals in 1992 but were knocked out after spending only eight days in Sweden.
As for 1996 and the novelty of losing to England – for whom Scotland’s player of the year scored a wonder goal – of which the less said, the better, a rule not observed south of the border.
And so to Euro 2020, via a classically awkward play-off in Belgrade against Serbia, when David Marshall made the decisive save of a penalty decider. The goalkeeper’s incredulous, exultant expression as he realised that he had ended 23 years of Scottish exile from tournament finals went viral.
Marshall’s next appearance as an online sensation, however, was in utter contrast. The image of the Derby County man tangled in the rigging of his goal after being lobbed from 49.7 yards by Patrik Schick in last week’s opening game against the Czech Republic became a meme, while the Tartan Army cried out as one: “Aw Naw!”
A new generation of supporters had been introduced to the notion of Scottish calamity, not ameliorated by the prospect of a potential mauling by Harry Kane & Co in Friday’s Auld Enemies collision at Wembley.
Conversely – or perversely, if you will – the game proved to be a showcase for the precocious mastery of Billy Gilmour.
A teenager until his birthday eight days before the game, Gilmour rendered a performance that secured the accolade of Uefa Player of the Match and preserved Scotland’s hope of qualifying from the group stage of a major tournament for the first time ever. Suddenly, if there was one man upon whose shoulders that feat looked likely to rest, it was Gilmour.
And then, of all the Covid tests of all the teams in all the tournament – he had to produce a positive. Even the lugubrious Steve Clarke was induced to admit that this was a major blow to his plans to outwit Croatia, who had contested the 2018 World Cup despite having a population smaller than that of Scotland.
Clarke’s response was to replace Gilmour with Stuart Armstrong, just as he had done at Wembley when the youngster had run his course after 75 minutes. The Scots’ need to score was imperative, not just to secure progress but to avoid the indignity of being the only team to exit without a goal to their credit.
The omens were not auspicious. Scotland were officially the away team on their own ground. The Argentine referee conjured memories of the debacle in 1978. And the bad news, delivered in the form of a strike by Croatia’s Nikola Vlasic – No. 13, of course – was that the task had doubled in severity after quarter of an hour.
Who would play redeemer? The Croats likely did not fear Callum McGregor, who had never scored in 33 previous appearances for Scotland. If so, their complacency was punished when the Celtic man’s 20-yard shot swept home just before the break.
Scotland had no such excuse when Luka Modric’s virtuoso finish from the same spot confounded Marshall on the hour, or when his corner kick supplied Ivan Perisic for his decisive late header.
Scotland’s 11th appearance in a tournament finals had gone the way of all the others. Same lament, different singers.
The only consolation was that this time there would be no need for a weary trek home.