TOMMY DOCHERTY reckoned they would be home before the postcards. The bookies rated them at 400-1 to win the World Cup. Even the official song by Del Amitri bore the downbeat title of "Don't Come Home Too Soon". At least no one could excuse Scotland of not living up to expectations at France 98.
But when he led his squad off the flight from Marseilles to Glasgow the day after a horribly anticlimactic 3-0 defeat by Morocco had ended the dream for another four years, there were no rotten tomatoes or resignation demands awaiting Craig Brown.
To the Scotland manager's astonishment, the police had to hold back a crowd of 1,500 singing, swaying supporters in a sea of tartan. Heaven help the Strathclyde constabulary if the national team ever graduate beyond gallant failure in a major tournament.
Brown had sat up until 4.30am in his room at the Scots' base in St-Remy- de-Provence studying what he describes as the "horror movie" of the Moroccan match. Six months on, he is less inclined to see the French adventure as something to be viewed from behind the metaphorical sofa.
Even Glenn Hoddle or his ghostwriter would struggle to present a record of no wins, one draw and two defeats as a moral triumph, but Brown uses the evidence of Fifa's statistical bureau to support his contention that the bare figures do not tell the true story.
"Going by their rankings, we were playing three of the top 11 sides on the planet, including the world champions, Brazil, who were always going to get through to the second phase. None of our clubs have had any success in Europe lately, and the World Cup, with the South Americans and Africans involved, is a far more rarified atmosphere."
At the opening game in the Stade de France, Scotland conceded a soft headed goal inside three minutes following a Brazilian corner. Brown, who works hard on negating other team's set-pieces, was dumbfounded. "Everyone knew exactly what his job was," he reflects now. "The two players concerned, Gordon Durie and Craig Burley, were sleeping a bit."
However, John Collins equalised with a penalty, and Scotland actually had the better of the opening period of the second half. Brazil's winner, an own goal off Tom Boyd's chest, was seen as an example of fate mocking the Scots once more, though Brown says with candour: "They wouldn't have been able to score a `lucky' goal if they hadn't been in our six-yard box."
In the build-up to the next game, against Norway in Bordeaux, the media clamoured for Burley to be switched to the central midfield role he filled successfully in Celtic's championship charge. On a sweltering afternoon, the manager resisted until shortly after Scotland fell behind against the run of play early in the second half.
"Burley did a great job in stopping Roberto Carlos against Brazil and he also attacked well," Brown explains. "People said I should have started with him in the middle but unfortunately I haven't got two Craig Burleys."
Moving to his preferred position, Burley made his point with a fine equaliser. The Scottish fans celebrated long and loud, believing the point gave them a great chance to progress. Brown sensed it would not be so simple.
"We were unlucky only to draw. Norway hadn't lost in 18 and we ran them into the ground but just couldn't get the winner. The feeling was that if we beat Morocco and Brazil beat Norway, we'd be through. But I knew that Brazil, having qualified, wouldn't be over-exerting themselves."
The enduring image of the final group game in St Etienne is of Jim Leighton fishing the ball from his net; or of Burley, hair newly bleached, disproving the notion that blonds have more fun by being sent off. Yet it was not a straightforward case of Morocco outclassing Scotland.
"That was a weird match," argues Brown. "If you show someone the match stats and ask them who they think won, they say Scotland. We had five corners to Morocco's one, 22 goal attempts to 14 by them, 14 on target to their nine, and a greater percentage of possession despite being down to 10 men for the last half hour."
The official, fly-on-the-wall video* shows a desolate dressing-room, with heads slumped on chests and Colin Hendry close to tears. Norway's defeat of Brazil meant that even a victory would not have been enough for Scotland to advance anyway, but the inquest went on until sleep could be stalled no longer.
Brown had to consider whether his loyalty to the veteran Leighton had been misplaced; and to ask himself if he was right to omit Ally McCoist from a 22 not overloaded with good finishers. In each case his answer is the same today as it was in Provence. "Leighton was outstanding for us in the qualifying and his record of 45 clean sheets in 91 caps is exceptional. As for McCoist, I didn't think he was fit enough, or that he'd done enough in the last two months of the season."
Moreover, Brown still cannot quite believe Scotland's "bad luck" in France. "In every match we had a penalty turned down which the replays confirm we should have had. I've worked at three World Cup finals - with Alex Ferguson in Mexico in '86, Andy Roxburgh in Italy four years later and now this one - and we've not had a scrap of luck.
"But I don't want it to sound like sour grapes. The bottom line is that we weren't good enough. We're a small country and at the moment we don't have the resources. I said at the time that we needed to find a Hamish Zidane or a McRonaldo, but talent tends to come in cycles. I'm confident that we have some fine young players emerging like Barry Ferguson and Callum Davidson. We just need to find some strikers."
Brown returned to France to work as a radio summariser. Suffering Norway's negative tactics against Italy in Marseilles he could not help thinking of what might have been. "The Italians were there to be beaten. It wasn't the best side of theirs that I've seen."
By the time England were knocked out by Argentina, also in St Etienne, Brown was back in Bordeaux watching on television in a bar. He is "not convinced" they would have won if David Beckham had not been sent off (unjustly in his opinion). "To watch the BBC Sports Review of the Year you'd have thought England would have won the tournament if only Beckham had stayed on. But I was impressed by them and keen to see them get into the last eight."
Such sentiments will not, it is safe to assume, be echoed by many of the supporters whose penchant for convivial chaos contrasted so vividly with the boorishness of some who were following England. Nevertheless, when Brown attended the first annual dinner of the Highland wing of the Tartan Army in Inverness recently, he was touched by the warm reception.
"There were 200 there and they were full of praise for our efforts in the World Cup. You get headlines saying `Fans in rage at Brown' but I haven't met an angry one yet. They usually say: `It was the best three weeks of my life'."
*Craig Brown's World Cup Diary (Green Umbrella Video, pounds 14.99).Reuse content