Another Scottish campaign ends in tears, but I see hope of a tartan revival

Reflecting on 15 years of highs, lows and a no-show, Phil Shaw sees a bright future
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It started up in Glasgow and ended up in tears. When I reported my first Scotland match for The Independent, the world champions Argentina, Diego Maradona et al, were vanquished at Hampden Park. In my penultimate assignment, 15 years later, the Scots lost calamitously to Belarus, a nation that was not even on the football map in 1990.

For this FEB (F***ing English B*****d), covering Scotland was once a ticket to the showcase occasions - four out of five major tournaments in the 1990s. After last weekend's horror show, for which Scotland made partial amends with Wednesday's exhilarating win in Slovenia, they must sit out a fourth successive World Cup or European Championship.

Even when Andy Roxburgh, and later, Craig Brown, led players like Gary McAllister, Paul McStay, John Collins and Ally McCoist into the various finals, critics claimed they could not hold a candle to Jim Baxter, Denis Law, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness. Now they hark back a decade and wonder when, if ever, Scotland will qualify again.

How has it come to this? And what hope does the future hold? The first question is complex. Prominent among the answers is a lack of vision in terms of all-weather playing facilities and community coaching provision back when qualification for the big events seemed a formality. The Scottish FA, along with local government, paid too little heed to changes in society. Boys once played street matches until dark. Now they play football on their PlayStations.

Educationally-minded coaches tried to address the underlying problems. But Brown, for one, was often derided because he had once been a school teacher. Behind jibes about the "Largs mafia" was the inference that he and the coaches he helped to produce there wanted to stifle Scottish flair with a regimented approach.

When Brown took charge of the national side, in 1993, Celtic and Rangers still boasted a core of Scots. That position was swiftly eroded by foreign imports. Long before his nine-year tenure ended, only one or two participants in an Old Firm fixture might have been eligible for Scotland. When Liverpool and Everton can produce Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, from a conurbation with a socio-economic background similar to Glasgow's, it is an indictment of Celtic and Rangers that they have developed no one comparable in modern times.

The SFA's decision to replace Brown with Berti Vogts - and its inertia once the reality became apparent - compounded the difficulties. Vogts lacked the required communication skills, while muddled selections and half-baked tactics made a bad job worse.

Walter Smith, despite missing out on the World Cup after Belarus emulated Peru in 1978 and Costa Rica in 1990 by winning a match all in Scotland assumed they would win, shows signs of at least restoring respectability. Last month's victory in Norway included 20 minutes of the best football Scotland have delivered since Brown's team embarrassed Kevin Keegan's England at Wembley in 1999. In Slovenia, with a textbook counter-attacking style, they were arguably better still.

Any renaissance must be about players. And Scotland really do, at last, have a generation breaking through, including the goalkeeper Craig Gordon; defenders Gary Caldwell and Andy Webster; midfielder Darren Fletcher; strikers Kenny Miller and James McFadden; and, coming up behind them, Shaun Maloney, Craig Beattie and Garry O'Connor.

With meticulous planning - for which Brown was also foolishly mocked - they will surely give qualification for Euro 2008 a better shot than Germany 2006. Unfortunately, the slide has scuppered their seeding status to the extent that they could be in a group with three of next year's finalists.

On a personal note, the tartan beat enabled me to play international football. Turning out for the Scottish Press (in a "gubbing" by the Dutch) meant I could always say I played alongside one of my heroes, the late Billy Bremner. The wee man's balance was such that the ash on his cigarette grew to two inches long as he strolled about stroking reverse passes. I was a one-cap wonder, alas, never picked again after our coach, the Sunday Post's Doug Baillie, substituted me. "Off you come," came the call. "You've suffered enough."

The collision of England and Scotland in Euro 96 put me in an awkward position. I sat still and stern as David Seaman saved McAllister's penalty and Paul Gascoigne danced away to make it 2-0. Yet a friend from a Dundee paper was adamant that he saw me leaping up to rejoice.

The most bizarre episode came in Estonia in 1996. In protest against a change in kick-off time, the hosts, like hung-over park players, failed to show. Scotland "played" 2.7 seconds against non-existent opponents before the "game" was abandoned. As we shuffled out to follow the team bus away from the ground, which had echoed to the refrains of "One team in Tallinn" and "Get intae them!", I saw Estonians donning their kit.

Talking of shirts, there was very nearly Gazza-style blubbing in Slovenia when my colleagues presented me with a Scotland jersey inscribed "Shaw 4" (Bremner's old number). The send-off did not stretch to a chorus of "You're not English any more", which the Tartan Army sang to "Anglos" like Andy Goram and Nigel Quashie, but for one FEB, the Scottish revival is awaited with qualified confidence.

Phil Shaw's Scotland XI 1990-2005





Subs: Sullivan (gk), Weir, Lambert, Hutchison, Gallacher