Football: Exhausted army reflects with sadness

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The Independent Online
FOR ALL the singing and dancing in defeat, the morning after brought a stark reality.

Played three, lost two, drawn one and bottom of the table. The coach, Craig Brown, a noted stickler for statistics, knows these are the only important figures.

Scotland confirmed their status as a footballing power just inside the world's top 32 but the real stories were in the stands. As the remains of Craig Brown's squad trudged round the Stade Geoffroy Guichard. I could not figure out who felt worse, the players or the fans.

As a player I well remember having to make those sort of gestures to the amazing Tartan Army, after letting them down yet again. In 1992 in Sweden it was exactly the same.

There could never be a question over the endeavour of everyone of Scotland's players, but just once, just once it would be right to give them something more than a moral victory at this level.

Unusually and surprisingly the players could not even produce a moral victory this time, against a Moroccan side who have valid claims to be more heartbroken that the Scots. A cynic might say the players' disappointment is selfish. But they wanted the glory, the financial rewards and the satisfaction that qualification would bring for themselves. It is just not true that, above all, they want it for the fans.

When walking around a foreign stadium acknowledging those fans after defeat and witnessing them singing their hearts out, the feeling of guilt is overpowering.

Although the hordes of kilted Scotsmen and women bedecked in lion rampants is a moving sight, it is also a hard one to swallow. In many ways it would be easier for the players to deal with if the fans went away and sang elsewhere.

The world may well have been given a colourful view of the Scottish fans seemingly happy and carefree in defeat, but the hearts of all concerned were heavy. Because even though we promised ourselves repeatedly that it would not happen again, it did. We allowed ourselves to believe against our better judgement that we could do it, that we were good enough.

After the game I stayed in the centre of St Etienne. At 4.30am I went down to the train station to see... well, just to see, really. A few die- hards sang but most lay on benches or on the hard ground fully clothed trying to snatch a couple of hours' sleep. The behaviour was as ever impeccable and there was not even a trace of anger, only a sadness that was painful to behold.

At the extreme risk of getting over- melodramatic, the scene in that station brought to mind the scene in the movie Bravehart just as the Scots had lost the battle to the English. The hundreds strewn across the station were exhausted, they had travelled a long way and had given so much of themselves to this.

Whether it was their hopes or their hard-earned cash, not one word of complaint was uttered in this uncomfortable and painful hour. I would have liked some other journalists to have been there, but doubtless some would have been unable to resist the unfair comparison of the fans sleeping rough while the players were tucked up in their comfortable five star bedrooms back in St Remy.

What they may have missed was the fact that there were plenty of current and former Scottish professional footballers there, who had roughed it too. I met four other players in and around St Etienne, none of whom had a cushy press number like me. It proved that most Scottish players including internationals will happily give up their comfy bed for the Saltire wrapped around you on the platform, when the time comes.

I heard plenty of stories from fans who had gone to outrageous lengths just to go through this exquisite torture. I wonder if the guy who told his wife that he was working in Torquay for two weeks, will ever be rumbled? If the student from Glenrothes who had borrowed well beyond his means will spend the next two years doing overtime to get back on an even keel?

In the end the real party is just getting going and the beautiful people are going to have a wonderful time as we are slumming it home. Once again they did not let us in, but only allowed us to entertain them on the doorstep with our curious antics for a little while.

As the last Scots dribbled out of France and the World Cup experience, I wondered if we will ever manage to get back again. I think they would love to have us - but I fear this may have been their last real chance. They liked us, but we just weren't good enough or sophisticated enough for them.