For the sixth time in successive campaigns, Scotland will finish in the “close but no cigar” mid-section of their qualification group.
Ever since finishing second and falling to Holland in the Euro 2004 play-off, the Scots have established themselves as a middling European nation.
In the 2006 World Cup campaign, seeded third, they finished third, behind Italy and Norway. For Euro 2008, seeded fourth, they finished third, behind Italy and France. For World Cup 2010, seeded second, they finished third, behind Holland and Norway. For Euro 2012, seeded third, they finished third, behind Spain and Czech Republic. For World Cup 2014, seeded fourth, they finished fourth, behind Belgium, Croatia and Serbia. And for Euro 2016, seeded fourth, they will, of course, finish fourth, behind Germany, Poland and Ireland.
Scotland, perennial World Cup qualifiers in the previous century, have since become the honest plodders of European football. They are the steady-Eddie golfer who rarely produces birdies but similarly doesn’t make bogeys. They generally par the course, nothing better, nothing worse. There are never any sustained heroics with Scotland, like those Iceland, who are benefitting from an improved talent pool, are currently producing, but similarly there is no sustained calamity of the type currently visiting Greece, a side who reached the last 16 of the World Cup a little over a year ago and now languish bottom of a weak-looking section.
If Scotland ever start a campaign well, like the current one or that of Euro 2008, they invariably run out of steam when it really matters. Likewise, they are capable of coming on strong towards the end of an already-doomed campaign, as they did for the 2006 World Cup and in the last campaign, for the 2014 World Cup.
Stringing it all together for a whole campaign and picking up points at critical times seems to be the problematic bit. And that, essentially, boils down to an absence of genuine top-level players who are used to winning regularly at a high level and collectively dealing with expectations which, when it comes to Scotland, remain higher than they should be given recent accomplishments, or lack of.
Every time the national team doesn’t qualify for a major tournament, it is automatically written off as a failure by the public, as if nothing but a top-two finish is acceptable regardless of the circumstances. This means that good national-team servants like Alan Hutton, Steven Whittaker, Gary Caldwell, Kenny Miller, James McFadden, Darren Fletcher, Steven Naismith, Scott Brown and Shaun Maloney, are effectively dismissed as serial let-down merchants simply for being among the best players Scotland had available in an era when the nation has a serious dearth of top-level talent.
None of those players bar Fletcher has ever played for one of Europe’s elite clubs. For all his qualities and his regular game time for Manchester United prior to his illness, though, the midfielder could never be considered a match-winning talisman in the mould of Gareth Bale or Robert Lewandowski, two players who have dealt savage blows to Scottish hopes over the past few years.
Given the sparsity of the talent pool – and it has been this way certainly since the turn of the millennium – it should hardly come as a surprise that the national team doesn’t make it to tournaments. The reason there is always such a fevered fallout when it ends this way, however, is, of course, the fact Scotland arguably has a prouder footballing heritage than many of the other nations who qualify for tournaments. Most Scots over the age of 30 grew up in times of regular World Cup qualification, while they also recall qualification for back-to-back European Championship finals in the 1990s. Those relative glory days seem a distant memory now.
Perhaps it would be easier to accept the current exile if Scotland actually had genuinely catastrophic campaigns, like the one the Greeks are currently enduring. The Euro 2004 winners have, incredibly, won none of their nine qualifiers and are rooted to the foot of a group that includes the Faroe Islands.
But Scotland, in a feat often overlooked in the clamour to bash them for not qualifying, don’t usually do abject failure. They consistently finish above the teams they are deemed stronger than – the likes of Georgia and Lithuania – and usually finish just beneath those who are viewed as marginally better, like the Czechs and the Poles. In effect, they punch their weight – nothing more, nothing less. It is often tantalising, gallant, miss-out-by-the-skin-of-their-teeth stuff, like Thursday night’s events, which only serves to heighten the sense of anguish, frustration and, in the end, anger, as the inevitable blame game begins.
Even allowing for the widely accepted lack of genuine talent, it is reasonable to ask why Scotland often seem to be in a challenging position yet are never able to see it through. Invariably, however, they are in contention but reliant on other results going their way. Scotland rarely go into the campaign-ending games with their destiny in their own hands, which then leaves them open to the type of unforeseen spanner in the works that occurred in Dublin on Thursday. Good teams come to the fore when it matters most; Scotland tend to wilt, which again comes down to the calibre of players.
Gordon Strachan laboured the point about a lack of fortune in the current campaign, which was slightly spurious given the fortuitous nature of his team’s goals at home to Georgia and Germany, and away to Ireland. However, over the course of their major tournament exile, it is inescapable that the Scots have seemed to suffer more than most at the hands of Lady Luck. For example, Lewandowski’s scrappy, last-gasp equaliser on Thursday evoked memories of the late penalty at Hampden – wrongly given against Danny Wilson – which allowed the Czech Republic to effectively kill off Scotland’s bid to make the last Euros.
They have also been drawn into some wretched sections, particularly in each of the last two campaigns, when, even allowing for the fact they have been seeded fourth, they could barely have picked a trickier batch of group rivals. A quick look at the aforementioned teams that have finished above Scotland in recent campaigns shows that they are never outperformed, over the course of a campaign at least, by so-called diddy nations. Norway are the weakest team to have finished above them during their major tournament absence, which is not exactly calamitous.
Of course, many will ask why Northern Ireland, with what is widely perceived to be a weaker squad, can qualify for a tournament and Scotland can’t. The answer is pretty simple: Michael O’Neill’s men, for all that they have done superbly, were pitted in a far softer section than Scotland, who beat them in a friendly just six months ago. The Northern Irish benefitted from being drawn alongside a top seed, Greece, who have inexplicably imploded in this campaign, while the second seed, Hungary, is possibly the only established European football nation to have had it worse than Scotland over the past two decades.
Romania are the only side who have given them any kind of run for their money. By contrast, the top seeds in Scotland’s groups over recent years have rarely been in genuine disarray. Where many had initially suspected that Ireland and Poland might be on the wane when the draw was made, it has been the opposite. Both have beaten Germany, and enjoyed maximum hauls from Gibraltar and Georgia, meaning that failing to defeat Scotland hasn’t been particularly costly for either. The fact the Scots’ three main rivals have all been up for the fight has been a factor in them being out of the equation with a game to spare despite only suffering one genuinely disappointing result – Georgia away – in the whole campaign.
Scrutiny of the manager always comes as part of a perceived failure, and Strachan, despite galvanising the nation in his first two years, has been unable to maintain momentum into the nitty-gritty stage of his first full campaign. Some of his decisions have been questionable, particularly in the last six months, but, in the grand scheme, when we are debating whether he should be picking a struggling Sunderland forward, or a striker from Blackburn Rovers or Celtic, it rather underlines the paucity of talent at his disposal. Ryan Gauld will hopefully live up to the early hype, but other than the Sporting Lisbon kid, there is little sign of any players coming through with greater potential than those currently wearing the dark blue had when they were starting out.
The nation is crying out for a young Rooney, Bale or Lewandowski-type talisman or two to emerge, but producing good players is not an exact science, meaning there is no easy and obvious fix. In the unlikely event that a tartan superstar is born, Scotland, with obvious limitations which surface in every campaign, are reliant on landing in a softer qualifying group some time soon. The 2018 World Cup draw could have been worse, but, with England almost certain to win the group, already it looks like the Scots are battling for a play-off berth with a high-flying Slovakia team and a Slovenia side who are still in contention for a place at Euro 2016. Anyone “expecting” Scotland to make it to Russia is setting themselves up for disappointment.