“It depends if you’re realistic or optimistic,” says Thomas Walker, who has been walking his pugs, Mia and Mini, around the perimeter of the Euro 2020 fan zone on Glasgow Green. “The match with England is going to be tough”.
Walker is buying a saltire flag for the much-awaited Scotland-England clash on Friday, after the men’s squad’s first qualification for a major tournament in 23 years. Standing at the merchandise stall by the fan zone entrance, he explains how he played in this park as a child in the 70s. He’s glad to see it so vibrant again, especially after the pandemic. “This is good for people,” he says. “And after Brexit it’s nice to see we can still play together. Even though I’ve not got a ticket, watching it in the house still lifts your spirits.”
David Little is inside the zone, watching the Finland-Russia game. The 20-year-old student is enjoying modest online notoriety after deciding to mark the team qualifying for their first major competition in his lifetime by visiting a street in Scotland named after each of the 26 squad members and posting the results of his mission on social media.
What does qualifying for the Euros mean for his generation of football fans? “It’s massive. There’s been a lot of near misses. It feels like a turning point – we’ve got a young squad and hopefully it’s the first of many to come.”
After Monday’s 2-0 defeat by the Czech Republic, the country was awash with mordant humour about a new generation of Scots coming to terms with the cycle of buoyant hope followed by crushing disappointment. But Euro 2020 has also been an opportunity to reflect on how Scotland’s sense of national self has developed over the past quarter of a century, as they face the ‘Auld enemy’ on Friday.
“Scots are just delighted to be at a major championship”, says Laura Montgomery, former medal winner for – and now chief executive of – Glasgow City FC, who has been instrumental in the development of the flourishing national women’s game. “The joy of qualifying for the Euros was unbelievable. Most of us absolutely love our little country, and we’re also good at making fun of ourselves for not doing so well. We’re famous for carrying large, vocal support to games, so you can see how much it means to us”.
With trains from Glasgow and Edinburgh to London fully booked over the next 24 hours, Scottish supporters’ groups are playing down reports of thousands of ticketless fans descending on Wembley, suggesting Covid restrictions and the lack of viewing zones in London are likely to constrain travel.
By Thursday lunchtime all of the tables outside the Barrel Vault pub at London’s St Pancras station were taken up by Scottish fans, mostly in kilts. Paul Petrie and his two workmates Joe Kelly and Davey Corns flew down from Dundee to Luton on Tuesday.
“We’re the advance party,” says Petrie, dressed in vintage 1978 replica kit with an Archie Gemmill’s squad number 15 on the back. They came just to soak up the atmosphere as fans arrive off the trains from King’s Cross. They do not have tickets for the game but plan to watch at the Oxford Arms in Kentish Town – if it passes a recce planned for later.
Kelly says: “My big worry is that they are not showing the game on a big screen anywhere, so there’s going to be a lot of Scotland fans with no bookings wandering the streets, and that’s just going to cause trouble.”
Davey Corns, who first travelled to London to watch England play Scotland in 1975, jokes, “My biggest worry is Raheem Sterling.”
Petrie adds: “Even if we lose, they’ll be no trouble. If we just watched Scotland for the winning you’d never go.”
The next two tables are taken by a group of 10 students from Edinburgh university, who caught the morning train packed with supporters. “Even for half-eight in the morning it was pretty rowdy,” says Blair Jones. Most of the group are booked into a hostel in Waterloo. “We booked for nine but there are 10 of us so one of us is doing an all-night on the street,” Jones says. “But it’ll be fine, half of Edinburgh has come down and everyone’s got mates of mates.”
Even at this late stage, they hope the game can be screened in Hyde Park where they reckon 15,000 Scots will gather. Fraser Clark says: “It was clear that the Tartan Army was going to travel, they always do, so not to put a screen up is bit negligent.”
What is not contained is the all-consuming excitement and extravagant expectation accompanying Scotland’s qualification, although most commentators dismiss suggestions that an upswing in support for independence has had an impact – Scotland supporters are a mixed bunch politically.
Montgomery says: “With independence on the rise, two referendums, maybe another one coming, it’s been an interesting time politically and you could say the country has been quite divided. This helps bring people together. Even for those not massively into football, they’re still watching the games.”
She also says the male-centric narrative around the sport is changing, after the women’s team’s notable successes in qualifying for the 2017 European Championships and the 2019 World Cup.
When one of Scotland’s sporting greats, Andy Murray, joked that he would be supporting “anyone but England”, after teasing about Scotland’s absence from the 2006 World Cup, he was voicing the historical gripe of the underdog. But this year, the genuine respect among Scottish supporters for Gareth Southgate’s principled management of his squad has been striking, particularly after the SFA’s U-turn over the team taking the knee during Euro matches.
The cessation of regular home nations games has inevitably reduced the intensity of feeling, says Paul Goodwin of the Scottish Football Supporters Association, as well as the difference in football financing. “The English premiership and the amount of money it entails means it is in a different stratosphere.
“England don’t see Scotland as rivals any more,” says Goodwin, “although a certain part of Scotland won’t grow out of it. That’s not about seeing it through the prism of nationalism, but a big country-small country dynamic”.
“Scotland is more confident in how we see ourselves since the parliament opened, and has embraced going to Europe: 25 years ago the big thing was going to Wembley, now the Tartan Army is more interested in going to Riga.”
Stuart Cosgrove, host of BBC Radio Scotland’s satirical football show Off The Ball, says football now is far less of a cultural shorthand for the modern nation.
“It used to be that the Scotland team was a metaphor for how we saw ourselves, but these days our cultural and political confidence is far greater than our sporting confidence. On Monday, nearly all headteachers opened up their schools to football and allowed the children to watch – my wee boy went wearing his strip, had a glass of Irn-Bru and danced to Yes Sir I Can Boogie in the playground. For me that spoke to new confidence as a nation, as opposed to 23 years ago, a belief that it is legitimate to celebrate ourselves.”