Scotland head to Hamburg draw as a Euro 2024 work in progress
Morning after night before brings no Hampden hangover for sober Clarke
To Hamburg, then, and one of those UEFA draw ceremonies that are made only slightly less interminable by having a dog in the fight.
When the great, the good and the overly promoted of continental football finally get through the bad Eurovision tribute act and start drawing the balls on Saturday, December 2, Scotland’s presence in Pot 3 – not as bad as it sounds, when you look at some of the company we’re keeping at the Euro 2024 Finals – will at least keep us tuned in until our group is rounded out.
Will many remember how we got there? Only the high points are likely to stand out. Beating Spain at Hampden. Those two late goals to beat the Norwegians at the Ullevaal.
The final Group A fixture on Steve Clarke’s card, a slightly barmy 3-3 home draw with Norway, is unlikely to feature on many people’s highlights lists.
So we’ll just call last night exactly what it was. An enjoyable opportunity for the Tartan Army to show how much they appreciate Clarke and his players.
This being Scottish football, there is no such thing as 100 per cent unequivocal adoration, of course. Part of the unwritten charter between supporters and national team involves constantly griping about the things that have gone wrong, worrying about the stuff that might go wrong … it’s a complicated relationship.
The most fretful of Tartan Army regulars will find a kindred spirit in Clarke, of course. He is literally paid to prepare for the worst. While expecting the best.
He’ll be heading to Germany next summer hoping that key men like Kieran Tierney, Andy Robertson and Aaron Hickey return to full fitness. Possibly even praying, however forlornly, for a world-class striker of Scottish lineage – however tenuous – to emerge.
Because last night reminded us of a few things, among them that Scotland can only play a back four with some of those missing pieces available.
The topsy-turvy contest also underlined the importance of John McGinn, who occasionally seems to carry the entire nation on his hunched shoulders.
But, of course, the main event of the night wasn’t the game itself. It was the party. The chance for fans to celebrate Scotland’s qualification.
Out came all the favourite songs, from Doris Day to Gala – the Italian singer, not the Borders town – and all stops in between.
“It was a nice night for supporters to say thank you to team, and for the team and staff to thank the supporters,” said Clarke, the head coach adding: “That part of the night was pretty good.
“It’s always nice to qualify. The last one (Euro 2020) was Covid restricted so we missed that connection with the fans, that feeling.”
Norway coach Stale Solbakken, a man with no great reason to feel warmly towards the Scots, given the way our boys have treated his team in this campaign, offered a fairly neat summation – a glimpse of how others see us, as Robert Burns would put it – of Clarke’s men when he said: “I think they have a great coach and very disciplined players who know their strengths and limits. They don’t pretend to be something else.
“They also have tournament experience now. So I think they can be a handful for everyone.
“I also think they can play two systems, which will be valuable for them. There will be no easy games for those who play Scotland.”
Asked about his opposite number’s evaluation of a team who finished second only to Spain in Group A, a typically deadpan Clarke said simply: “That would be the intention, to go there and compete. What we’ve worked hard at is being very competitive every time we go on the pitch.
“We’re Scotland. We have a certain way of playing. We have a style. We like to play on the front foot.
“Hopefully the Norway manager is right when we get to Germany.”
Typically, Clarke insisted he wasn’t even aware of which teams were in Pot 3 or Pot 2 for the finals draw.
He’ll do his homework at some point over the next fortnight. Allow himself to consider the possibilities of this or that draw. Without ever imagining that the European Championship Finals – the second major tournament reached on his watch – represents anything less than a monumental challenge.
Clarke deserves the last word on a campaign that saw Scotland surpass all expectations, qualifying with two games to spare. Quite ridiculous, when you think about it.
“I’ll probably spend the next couple of days recovering, take a bit of time to myself,” he said.
“Then I’ll look back at Georgia and Norway, see what I could have done better, see what the players could have done better.
“Then I’ll get myself ready for a trip to Hamburg, which is great. We’re in the draw and that’s something everyone can look forward to next summer. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
On that point, and on the morning after a night of deserved adulation, he’ll find few Scotland fans in disagreement.