SHOOTING from the fourth pot of a formidable six-team section, but expected to finish in the top two; finishing third in a Euro 2012 qualifying group when seeded third, yet having it branded a calamitous campaign; drawing at home to Czech and Serbian sides littered with Bundesliga and Serie A players and being lambasted for not winning.
This is the life of a present-day Scotland player. The demands are high; unreasonably so, it could be argued. The desperate clamour to get back to a major finals is understandable, especially from those who had become accustomed to qualification for major finals on a regular basis until the drought kicked in from 1998 onwards. Yet there is little precedent or present-day evidence to suggest Scotland should be performing much better than they are.
Different groups of players under different managers have all tried and failed to qualify over the last decade and a half, and some have even been unable to make it from the relative luxury of being first or second seeds in the group. The current crop is further handicapped by operating out of the fourth pot, yet still, bizarrely, shouldering expectations associated with a leading European nation.
As another campaign looks set to end in perceived failure, the players and manager are getting it in the neck. Things are getting poisonous. There is a general air of negativity surrounding the national team which is not helping as they strive to improve the grim situation.
Ahead of tonight’s daunting assignment against a star-studded Belgium side in Brussels, Christophe Berra, the Scotland centre-back, insisted that, while he is as disappointed as the Scottish public over the national team’s current predicament, there should be more understanding of what they are up against in an international environment where only a handful of teams can still be considered pushovers.
“For a small nation like ourselves, if you want to qualify for these major tournaments, you’ve got to pull out big results when nobody expects them,” said Berra, the former Hearts captain. “We don’t have the facilities or the players that our rivals have. Scotland has always had big expectations, though. This crop of players is probably better than we’ve had in past years, but it takes time to gel. Unfortunately, as we’re finding, international football is a ruthless business. People say we should be beating Serbia and Macedonia at home and then winning in Wales, but these are not easy games.
“Ask any player or manager who has been involved with Scotland and they will tell you that there are no easy international games these days, no matter whether you’re playing a big nation or a small nation.
“It’s frustrating to read all the stick that comes our way when we don’t win a game because we know how hard it is to win an international game. The people criticising us generally don’t. You get that at all levels, though. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing for Scotland, England, France, Man United, Wolves or Hearts, you’ll always get stick because people’s expectations are higher than they maybe should be. I just try and listen to the people’s opinions that count, such as your fellow players, managers and coaches.”
Many of the players were visibly stung by the jeers they were subjected to during and after last month’s draw at home to Macedonia, when the Balkan outfit, who have twice run Croatia close, outplayed the Scots for long periods. Goalkeeper Allan McGregor was particularly outspoken about the negativity after that game, while his former Scotland and Rangers team-mate, Lee McCulloch, joined the calls for expectations to be scaled down in the wake of the defeat by Wales on Friday night.
“Maybe the thing is – and it’s not easy for me to say this because I’ve been part of it – maybe the standard isn’t as good as some supporters think and expect,” said McCulloch. “When you see other countries improving and getting harder and harder to beat, it makes life more difficult for Scotland. Supporters also don’t understand that the days of beating Macedonia 3-0 at Hampden and going away to Belarus and winning with a bit to spare are long gone. So until that’s taken on board the expectation level is always going to be a false one. I’ve played against these so-called inferior countries and it’s damned difficult to beat them.” Despite being aware of the considerable gulf in quality they will have to overcome, Scotland will enter the King Badouin Stadium tonight intent on pulling off a repeat of their famous win in France over five years ago. Berra knows that, in light of the countless setbacks the team has endured over the past few years, they will need all 11 players to show their resilience if they are to somehow pull off a result against a team considered by some as dark horses to win the World Cup.
“We’ll need big characters out there because they’ve got world-class players throughout and they just beat Serbia 3-0 away from home,” said the Wolves defender. “We’re going to have to put in a great performance and hope that they have an off night. We’ve got to look to the win over France for inspiration. Belgium are maybe not as big a nation as France, but they’ve easily got players as good as that French team. I’ve been in Wolves teams in the past where we’ve beaten Man United and teams like that, so every dog has its day. If a bit of luck goes our way, you never know what can happen.”
The fact they are already downtrodden by the gut-wrenching events that saw a 1-0 lead turned into a 2-1 defeat late in that game in Cardiff makes tonight’s task seem even more difficult. “I still don’t know how we lost that game,” said Berra. We were in a comfortable position. We defended well and passed the ball well. I just don’t know how we lost. A few things went against us. We didn’t play badly, but small decisions cost us. We need to be a bit more street-wise. That’s football, though. We need to make sure these things don’t go against us. We are adults, we all play for big teams in big leagues, so we need to go out and just make sure these things don’t happen again. You’ve got to be thick-skinned as a footballer, so we’ll be ready for Belgium.”