“Ninety-eight,” says Shaun Maloney. It is all he needs to say: the last time. The detail does not matter from this distance, the brightness of an equaliser against Brazil on the opening night of France ’98, the own goal that lost it, the drubbing by Morocco and another early return home beneath a dark cloud. At least they were there.
It seems appropriate that Maloney is sitting in a brewery in Glasgow. For Scotland’s supporters this is a record best recalled with a stiff drink in easy reach. Euro 2000, Japan and Korea 2002, Euro 2004, Germany 2006, Euro 2008, South Africa 2010, Euro 2012, Brazil 2014 have all come and gone without Scotland. What they would give for another first-round failure now. At least it would mean they had been there.
It is 17 years and counting since Scotland, a side who through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were more regular World Cup attenders than England, last reached a major finals. The years have been painfully ticked off – that is a couple of generations of players who have spent tournament summers watching on TV. There are those in Gordon Strachan’s squad today who are too young to remember seeing Scotland taking their place among the continent’s or world’s elite – Andrew Robertson was four in 1998.
Strachan shepherded Maloney, Robertson and the rest on to the pitch at the Boris Paichadze Arena in Tbilisi this evening for a final training session before this evening’s crucial meeting with Georgia. Manager, back-room staff and players bustled through their drills knowing they have created Scotland’s best chance of qualifying since the side were last in Georgia eight years ago. As then, they travelled with excess baggage of hope and history.
Back in the brewery Maloney, one of Scotland’s brightest sparks in this promising campaign, spoke about looking at the pictures on the wall of teams from years gone by – Tennent’s have long backed Scottish football – and seeing the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Archie Gemmill, Denis Law, greats of European – not just Scottish – football staring back at him.
History hangs heavy, not just in the sustained failure to qualify but even in this very fixture. In 2007, Scotland did an improbable double over France and then faced a seemingly straightforward trip to a weakened Georgia. The hosts fielded a 17-year-old in goal, Scotland lost and were left needing to beat the world champions Italy in their final qualifier for Euro 2008.
The current world champions are also next up this time around. Germany are in Glasgow on Monday. It is understandable that Strachan and his coaching staff are determined to ignore the past.
“I don’t think it’s related to anything that’s happened before,” said Mark McGhee, Strachan’s assistant. “It’s what’s happening now, and what’s happening now is we have a group of players who are determined to do well under the system Gordon has given them.
“Irrelevant of what has gone on before, we go into this game with a chance of winning it because of all those positives and that’s all we can think about. Any idea that there’s some sort of jinx, or some sort of lineage that we can’t win these sort of games... we’re not interested in that. This is a single game in isolation.”
Except it isn’t, at least not for those beyond the squad. James Morrison joked with journalists that they would like to get to a major tournament as much as the players. Now that it is at long last tangible again, there is a desperation to get there, and one fuelled by having a team – and this Scotland side is very much a team, a happy group, one without stars, adhering sensibly to Strachan’s neat structure – that might be good enough to get back to France.
Beat Georgia and then it is Germany and Poland, one of whom will drop points on Friday night, at home with Gibraltar on the Algarve to round it all off. It is doable. Certainly, it is the best chance since the challenge for Euro 2008 collapsed in a Georgian heap. It is the best team, if not group of players, since – arguably for a decade or more.
“This thing about what has happened before is big in people’s minds. It’s not big in our minds,” insisted McGhee. “People feel that we have to bury some sort of ghost. We’re not worried about that – otherwise you take too big a burden with you. We leave that alone. We think Gordon has achieved things, we think the team has a bit more consistency about it and we’ve had some reasonable results.”
It is impossible, though, to hide the past. Maloney, along with Craig Gordon and Darren Fletcher the surviving starters from that dreadful night in Tbilisi eight years ago, admits he looks at the pictures on the brewery wall and thinks, “I want some of that”.
“It’s a big motivation,” he said. “I’d imagine it’s the same for everyone. As you get older you start to realise you don’t have endless campaigns. You start to realise it’s not going to last for ever. You see pictures of teams who have made it and you’re just envious. You want to be part of a squad that makes it to a major championship.”
Strachan has his place on the wall. He played in two World Cups, scoring against West Germany in 1986 – another memorable moment of false hope. His achievements in the blue shirt would pale in comparison to being the manager who ended the hoodoo. He has reinvigorated Scotland, and their supporters, after the dour, depressing days of Craig Levein’s tenure, and deserves enormous credit for doing so, yet the biggest test comes over the next five weeks.
“We’ve not done anything extraordinary,” said McGhee, understandably determined to keep a lid on the optimism that is bubbling once more. “All we’ve done is what you would expect of a team of our stature, to give ourselves a chance – which in some tournaments recently we’ve not managed. All we’ve managed is what’s expected of us.”
On Friday night his and Maloney’s and Strachan’s country expects again, but more than anything it hopes – hopes that come this time next year Maloney’s picture will be hanging on the wall of a brewery in Glasgow. “This is why we all play for our nation, we want to go to big championships,” said Maloney. “It’s been that long that we haven’t – it’s a hunger from everyone that we want to go back there.”
The low road: Scotland’s unqualified failures
Euro 2000 England beat Scotland in the qualifying play-offs.
World Cup 2002 Scotland finish third in their group behind Belgium and Croatia.
Euro 2004 Under Berti Vogts, Scotland win first leg of play-off against Netherlands 1-0 but lose the second 6-0.
World Cup 2006 Vogts resigns after poor start. Walter Smith takes over and Scotland finish third in group behind Italy and Norway.
Euro 2008 Despite being in group of certain death with World Cup-winners Italy, runners-up France and Ukraine, Scotland, after beating France twice, reach their last two games against Georgia and Italy with qualification in their own hands. They lose them both.
World Cup 2010 Scotland fail to make it under George Burley, losing to Macedonia and being hammered 4-0 by Norway.
Euro 2012 Craig Levein wins only two qualifying games but it is his selection of a strikerless team to play the Czechs that sums up another unsuccessful campaign.
World Cup 2014 Levein goes after a poor start and Gordon Strachan loses his first two games as Scotland are the first European country to fall out of contention for Brazil.
Euro 2016 With four games left Scotland sit third in Group D on 11 points, behind Poland on 14 and Germany on 13, while Ireland have nine. The top two qualify automatically, third place goes into a play-off. Germany and Poland meet on Friday night.Reuse content