Scottish football’s cold harsh winter in Europe

Barcelona v Celtic

Barcelona v Celtic in the Champions League Photo: Marc Puig i Perez

Celtic’s rather dismal failure to qualify for the Champions League group stage has heaped pressure on manager Ronny Deila and prompted the now annual round of introspection in the Scottish game that follows such results.

The Scottish champions were careless in the first leg against Malmo and, by their own admission, scarcely turned up in the second. Deila suggested that his players underperformed on account of “wanting it too much.” Scott Brown admitted to being “ashamed” afterwards; an honest assessment from an honest player.

So, just how bad have we become in Europe? The honest truth is that the performance of most Scottish clubs in European competition has been less than impressive for quite a long time now and not much has changed this season.

St Johnstone lost to a team from Armenia (that’s quite shameful since Armenia are ranked 24 places below Scotland in UEFA’s coefficient rankings). Inverness Caley lost to Romanian opponents (a lot less shameful than St Johnstone’s effort since Romania are ranked nine places above us). Aberdeen deserve some credit for a decent run (including an excellent victory over my Croatian team, Rijeka)  but still passed up a good opportunity to reach the Europa League group stage by losing to a side from Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan currently sit just three places below us in the rankings).

The problems of Scottish football are well documented and there are no quick or easy fixes. Our current coefficient ranking is 24th out of 54 UEFA member organisations. That’s an interesting ranking, not least because next year’s European Championships will be contested by 24 nations for the first time. The coefficient ranking is based on the performance of club sides in European competition and it gives a good overall indication of the state of the game across Europe. We probably are around the 24th best footballing nation in Europe right now.

Will we therefore be one of the 24 qualifiers for Euro 2016 in France? Things were looking very positive on that front until Friday night’s inept display in Georgia. To be fair, it was the first such display under Gordon Strachan. Prior to that game, he was rightly raking in plaudits for the job he’s done as Scotland boss.

He didn’t initiate a revolution; he stuck by a core group of players that he trusts, gave them some confidence, added a dash of freedom to express themselves and we seemed at long last to find ourselves competitive in a qualifying group (and a pretty tough group at that).

I’ve looked at the last three rounds of fixtures in the group, starting with tonight’s game against Germany at Hampden, and predicted the results of all the teams still in with a chance of qualifying. By my estimates, Germany will comfortably finish top with Poland in second place while we will finish the group in third place, just marginally ahead of the Republic of Ireland. If I’m right, then a play-off would then await.

I’m predicting a 2-0 win for Germany tonight and partly for that reason I’m not intending to get up at 2:45am to watch the game. Nothing will be decided tonight, but with three qualifying games to go we are definitely entering what Sir Alex would refer to as ‘squeaky bum time.’ And trust me, bums don’t come much squeakier than those of the tartan army. If we can somehow squeak a point, I’ll be delighted with that.

Overall, Strachan has shown that solid (even, at times, entertaining) performances can be coached out of our current squad. His coaching ability is the single biggest difference that has made us more competitive in this qualifying campaign compared to almost any other in recent memory, at least since the famous double victory over France in our ultimately failed bid to reach Euro 2008.

Coaches are important then but the stark fact remains that we need better players, both in the national side and in our top club sides. Wales are on course to qualify for Euro 2016 thanks, in large part, to having a world class player in Gareth Bale leading their attack. Developing such players will take time, investment, and cultural change – all things we’ve known for a long time.

One thing that might also help would be a switch to summer football in Scotland, something that’s been much discussed but never gained too much momentum. I used to be a sceptic but I’ve changed my mind since I left Scotland to live in the tropics. I now go back once a year and in the last couple of years it has been for Christmas. I always go to a game when I’m back. At that time of year, it’s always freezing, usually wet, and the pitches look like beaches (but not of the tropical variety).

Those are not great conditions to play football in and they are not good conditions to watch football in either. So, buckets and spades at the ready, I’m advocating summer football in Scotland. Traditionalists be reassured, we won’t notice that much difference since “summer” in Scotland tends towards the cold and the wet anyway.

Summer football won’t happen in Scotland any time soon but let’s hope that at least some Scottish players are playing football next summer – in France.

In search of freedom … from Mel Gibson

The Tartan Army. Photo by: Ronnie MacDonald

The Tartan Army. Photo by: Ronnie MacDonald

The draw for the qualifying stages of the 2018 World Cup took was conducted while I was asleep. To be honest, I’d forgotten that it was even taking place last weekend. When I awoke, it was to discover the sudden appearance of Mel Gibson all over my Facebook feed. There he was, charging forward, arm extended, offering the hand of … well, not exactly friendship.

Scotland v England; the auld enemy drawn together in the same group. Two competitive matches to anticipate. Fortunately, the recent progress that Scotland has made under Gordon Strachan means that those matches will actually be competitive. England start as big favourites of course but they can expect a stern test at both Hampden and Wembley.

Strachan said that “the whole of Scotland are roaring” after the draw: “they make take all three points, but they will never take our underdog sense of grievance” or something like that.

Scotland v England is the oldest international fixture in the world and it may be a little bit of an understatement to describe the rivalry as intense. I’m all in favour of intense rivalry and even more in favour of the ‘banter’ that stokes it. I must also confess (and I’m not particularly proud of this) that I tend to support whichever opposition England happen to be facing.

That said, I have very little time for the ‘stand up if you hate England’ brigade. It’s a song (and there are plenty of others like it) that gets repeated airings at Hampden and never fails to strike me as rather pathetic.

I am a very patriotic Scot but not a nationalist (at least not in the contemporary context of Scottish politics). I think there’s a perfectly reasonable case to be made for Scottish independence and it’s one that it is sometimes but not always made by the SNP. It’s not a case that I find entirely convincing however and that’s why I would’ve voted no in last year’s referendum if I’d been entitled to vote (something denied to me as a Scot living overseas).

While there were some very positive aspects of the referendum campaign – the level of engagement among young people for instance – it did bring to the surface the dark and unseemly underbelly of Scottish nationalism. There lurks hatred of the English and indeed hatred of anyone (“traitors” is the term often employed) of anyone who doesn’t share their zeal for independence.

I sincerely hope that the forthcoming games are remembered as a sporting spectacle and that the banter remains exactly that and doesn’t become something altogether uglier.

The matches promise to be two great occasions and you should definitely take the chance to watch if you like your football with a generous side serving of intensity. These will be games for the brave rather than faint of heart, on the pitch and in the stands.

Between now and then, I’ve no doubt that Mel Gibson will be making a few more appearances on Facebook.

The day I queued for three hours to watch a football match (on TV)

Stirling University campus. Photo by: John Bostock

Stirling University campus. Photo by: John Bostock

It was Saturday the 13th of November 1999. I was in my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Stirling. Scotland were playing England at Hampden in the first leg of the play-off for the Euro 2000 tournament that was hosted in Belgium and the Netherlands.

I wasn’t a member of the Scotland Supporters Club back then so there was absolutely no chance of getting a ticket for the game. My room in my halls of residence didn’t have a TV and anyway I think the game was on Sky. The few people I knew with TVs in their rooms didn’t have satellite TV.

No problem though, the sports bar at the student union was showing the game. They’d been advertising it for several weeks.

On a normal Saturday as a first year undergraduate I would not have been up before noon. The game kicked off at 2pm. The night before, anticipating that it might be busy, a group of us discussed what time we should head over to the pub. I suggested noon should be fine, a full two hours before kick-off. The suggestion was met with incredulous looks.

I thought I’d been rash in proposing that we go so early. After all, that would require getting up before noon. “I’m going to go over and check at nine tomorrow morning,” one of my friends said. It’s just as well he did.

Before nine the following morning he was banging on my door. “There’s a queue already, let’s go.” I stumbled out of bed. 30 minutes later I had joined him and several other friends in the queue. It stretched all the way around the building and halfway down the main drive of the campus.

Since it was November in Scotland it was freezing cold. We shivered and sought warmth in song. The sports union pub wasn’t due to open until noon – two and a half hours to wait. I think someone had a packet of wine gums; that was all we had to sustain us.

Of course the queue wasn’t moving because there was nowhere for it to go until the doors opened. We speculated about the line-ups and made our predictions for the score. I tipped 1-1. There was confidence but mostly nerves (and boredom).

Finally it was noon. Still we waited. Anguished glances up the queue. “What’s going on?” grew to a chorus. At last, a solitary step forward; one small step for me but one giant leap for the queue.

About 20 minutes later we were inside. It was 12.30. To say we were packed in would be something of an understatement. I had a sense that various health and safety stipulations were probably being breached. The bigger concern was how to get to the bar to order a beer and a burger. The tallest in our group (not me) was dispatched on this mission.

He returned with beers and the news that the burgers would take about an hour. Apparently the kitchen was a little overworked. In the end the burgers took almost 90 minutes to arrive.

Scotland were two goals down by then. Scholes scored both. On each occasion our defence granted him a far more generous amount of space than had been provided to us in the pub.

The team battled on strongly, played reasonably well, but didn’t manage to score. 2-0 was the final result. We walked back dejectedly.

The second leg at Wembley was on the Wednesday night and it was on either BBC or ITV (I don’t remember which). That meant we could watch it in the TV room in our halls.

The general consensus among pundits seemed to be that the tie was pretty much over. A 2-0 win away from home was certainly a good result for England. At Wembley we were immense though. Don Hutchison scored to put us ahead just before half-time. Suddenly it looked possible. I recall this as one of the best games that Barry Ferguson ever played, he completely dominated the midfield.

The longer the second half went on the more desperate we all became. Then, with 10 minutes to go, a flick on from a corner and there was Christian Dailly, launching himself into a diving header from six yards out. Completely unconsciously, I mirrored his effort. This meant that I had launched myself at the TV.

Seaman just got a hand on it and kept the header out. I saw that just before the sticky floor of the TV room met my face. Dailly picked himself up. I picked myself up and sat back down. 10 minutes later it was all over and we were out.

Scotland face England tonight in a friendly at Celtic Park. It’s the first time the two countries have played each other in Scotland since that November day in 1999. Tonight I have the option of watching at home but it will require me getting up at 4am, which is about the equivalent of getting up at 9am as an undergraduate.