WHISPER it, but Scotland are threatening to seize the moment and make history.
Four games remain in European Championship qualifying and the end is in sight. Tbilisi is no football hotbed, but tomorrow the sweltering Georgian capital becomes pivotal to Gordon Strachan’s quest to lead the national team to France and a first major tournament in 18 years.
Strachan and his players boarded the five-and-a-half-hour flight to Tbilisi yesterday morning knowing destiny is their hands. Beat Georgia and they could jump from third place to second in Group D, depending on the result between leaders Poland and second-placed Germany in Frankfurt. Three points separate the three nations at the moment. It is tighter than two coats of paint and the Scots are loving every second of it.
Not since 2007 have Scotland had a real chance of automatic qualification nearing the end of a campaign. Strachan has emulated his former Aberdeen team-mate Alex McLeish – who came so close to guiding the nation to Euro 2008 – by galvanising the Scottish players and the Tartan Army, all of whom are desperate to ride this wave of euphoria all the way to France. It will mean nothing, however, if they don’t finish the job.
“We can deal with the pressure,” says Steven Naismith, the Everton forward so vital to Strachan’s gameplan. “The game against Georgia at Ibrox was probably our best performance when we won 1-0. We just didn’t have the finishing to get more goals. Poland away was another good performance so we’ll look back on these to refresh ourselves. You work so hard to get into the national team and it’s for these kind of trips.
“When you start a campaign, there’s so long to go. This is the first get-together where you’re like, ‘We’re coming to the end here and the finish line is in sight’. All that hard work you’ve put in reminds you what it’s all for.
“Everybody grew up seeing Scotland at these major tournaments. When you turn into that adult and you’re in football and you’re not going, it’s hard to take. You maybe realise how much you took it for granted as a kid, watching Scotland at major finals and seeing how great the atmosphere was. We have a chance to change things back to that and get to these finals. As the campaign goes on, the support has been amazing and that gives you the drive to go again.”
At 28, Naismith is old enough to remember watching Scotland’s last major finals appearance. “The most prominent one for me was France 98. That’s when I was into football, I knew the players and knew a bit about football. The opening game against Brazil, you couldn’t have picked a better one to be involved in or watch as a fan.”
Strachan’s rebuild has been steady since he replaced Craig Levein as national coach. He has his own mind and ideas, and has implemented a flexible tactical structure which sees Scotland able to adapt to any style of game at home or away. He has his players focused from the minute they enter Mar Hall to meet up until the second the final whistle blows.
“When the manger came in, he just stripped everything back to basics,” says Naismith. “On your down time, you’re now more restricted on what you’re allowed to do. There’s a bit more waiting around but, in his eyes, he isn’t bothered. He believes you’re here to do a job and that’s it. It’s like, ‘I don’t need to entertain you in your time off. You’re a professional’. Everything else has fallen into place from there and the players’ work ethic is amazing.
“Everybody probably has a real belief that they’ve got a chance of playing. It’s not like there are guys in the squad who think, ‘Ach, I’m just part of the squad’. That keeps everyone performing. This is the one squad I’ve been in that’s had the most optimism and the most competition for places. The competition has definitely driven the quality up. You can’t rest on, ‘I’ll play the next game anyway’. There’s none of that.
“You see new guys coming in. Matt Ritchie is fairly new but he’s becoming a regular starter, so that shows you can make a quick impact. It is great to be involved in. Now you just want to get over the finishing line and get to a tournament.”
Georgia remains the kind of place where Scotland habitually slip up. In fact, that Euro 2008 campaign under McLeish would probably have achieved a place in the finals but for a damaging 2-0 loss in Tbilisi in the penultimate qualifier.
“The conditions, like the playing surface, is one thing,” says Naismith. “Then there’s the heat because it’s going to be much hotter. Everton went to Singapore for pre-season so I’ve had ten days out there and it might help me. You only need to look at how we’ve done in this campaign and how we’ve done against Georgia. That’s what you go on.
“We know it will be tough. We beat them 1-0 at home, we played well and created chances, but on another day they could’ve scored. That result would then be totally different. This part of the campaign is probably like the last quarter of a season when you’re at Rangers or Celtic and you’re fighting for the league. There is so much riding on the games. That’s probably what the players who’ve been in that situation will think about.
“That’s the most similar situation I could compare it to. You’ve worked so hard, you’ve got the points, now it’s this last bit where things are won and lost. The squad is at a mature age. We have some younger guys but the majority are mid to late 20s. That’s an age where you should be taking more responsibility and I think we do that.
“There is a real belief we can make history. That stems from the manager and his coaches - Mark McGhee, Stuart McCall and Jim Stewart. The three of them reinforce it. Our success in this campaign so far has just been down to hard work. It shows you what hard work can get you. We’ve all bought into it and it’s got us this far. Now we want to get over the line and qualify.”