8.5 out of 10
Scotland have progressed hugely. In trying to qualify for the 2006 World Cup they won three of 10 games, finishing third in a group containing Italy (first), Norway (second), Slovenia, Belarus and Moldova. In the Euro 2008 campaign, up against France, Italy, Ukraine and three others, they won eight of 12 games, and were squeezed into third place in their last match. Not only that, they played with cohesion, and even flair at times.
Alex McLeish has emerged as a highly-regarded manager who built on the good work of his predecessor Walter Smith, who made Scotland hard to beat. McLeish wanted even more: a mind-set that anything is possible. He was not error-free, tactically, but still excelled to see his stock rise – and attract offers that could lure him back to club football.
In a young team where several players gave massive individual performances in key games – goalkeeper Craig Gordon at home against France; the holding midfielder Paul Hartley and talismanic striker James McFadden in Paris; Scott Brown, a powerhouse at home against Ukraine – the meteoric rise of the Rangers right-back, Alan Hutton, 22, stands out. He won his first cap in a friendly against Austria in May and has been magnificent in all his four competitive matches since. The Premier League beckons as soon as any club can tempt a reticent Rangers with big money.
No player stands out as a let-down – it was a solid squad campaign – although one striker, Kris Boyd, has done little to shake off his reputation as a frustrating enigma. His record in club football is astonishing: 106 league goals from 154 starts for Rangers and his previous club, Kilmarnock combined. And he has been no slouch for Scotland, scoring seven goals in 13 internationals, including four in four starts in Euro 2008 qualifying. But the argument is that he does little else but score and he contributes too little overall to force his name onto the team sheet, for club or country, often enough.
A range of talented youngsters did make breakthroughs though, Hutton, Brown and Gordon foremost among them.
8 out of 10
Northern Ireland's tired and beaten players retreated from the Spanish island of Gran Canaria yesterday. They had been thumped 1-0 by Spain on Wednesday night, thereby ending their remote chance of qualification – and it was a drubbing despite the scoreline.
However, when the bulk of the squad returned to their clubs in Accrington, Motherwell, Bristol, Scunthorpe and elsewhere (only five of Wednesday's side play in the Premier League) it will be to applause. By any measure, Northern Ireland over-achieved. The thrill was that they also entertained.
Drawn from pot six in a seven-team group, the Irish finished third. In the previous campaign, for the 2006 World Cup, Northern Ireland won two games; now they won six, beating Spain, Sweden and Denmark in Belfast. The team ethic was tangible.
It means that in Sunday's World Cup draw they are likely to come out of pot three and so the opportunity is there to build on what was set in train by previous manager Lawrie Sanchez, to give fresh impetus to the celebrated goals of David Healy.
Healy ended up as the top scorer in the Euro 2008 qualifiers due to his 13 goals. Quite a few of them were solo efforts of memorable class and Healy has written himself into the history of Irish football. His beautiful hat-trick against Spain was the first for Northern Ireland since George Best. It is some company.
Alongside Healy, Burnley's Kyle Lafferty grew in stature and the 6ft 4in 20-year-old is expected to move to the Premier League in January. Fulham, where Sanchez now has four other Irishmen, are interested.
Manchester United teenager Jonny Evans also rose to prominence. Evans' brilliant debut, marking Spain's Fernando Torres out of the game at Windsor Park, will be often recalled. Motherwell's Stephen Craigan merits a mention, too, for consistency, as does captain Aaron Hughes.
Curiously, Craigan and Evans seemed to fall out of favour with Sanchez's successor, Nigel Worthington. As well as the draw in Stockholm and victory over Denmark last Saturday, Worthington presided over derailing defeats in Latvia and Iceland, in addition to Wednesday's tepid exit against Spain's B team. But the Irish Football Association want him full-time.
5 out of 10
Qualification being a dirty word in the nation that has still to get to the finals of a major championship by right, Wales can only ever judge their campaign by those simple barometers of "progression" or "regression".
No doubt plenty in the Principality will be screaming the latter during this painful time of review, but how they can equate going backwards with a team containing five players under the age of 21 obtaining a draw in Germany only they will possibly know.
Granted, Wales only finished ahead of Cyprus and San Marino in Group D, but it was never quite the disaster it threatened. Still, "progression" is admittedly a bit strong; "treading water" is probably closer to this mediocre mark.
So where does it all leave manager John Toshack: with a gun against his head or at least a leek against his throat? Well, no. Because even before Wednesday's stirring finish in Frankfurt, the feeling was largely one of sympathy. "What else can he do but chuck in the kids?" seems to be the verdict in the pubs. Except if Robbie Savage is offering to buy the beers, naturally.
One thing is for certain and that is Craig Bellamy. Perhaps, his is not the first countenance that springs to mind when piecing together an identikit of the perfect captain, but the former enfant horrific-able has established himself as a leader of some maturity and indeed inspiration. What Wales could have done with the injured striker in those last two games.
As it was, the draws against the Republic of Ireland and in Germany did much to exorcise the demons of Nicosia. For Wales's worst player of the qualifiers you could have picked any one of the 11 starters in the wretched 3-1 defeat in Cyprus last month. That led to Toshack's by-now infamous "did it look like they cared?" speech and quite understandably, too. For this was ineptitude with a shrug of indifference.
But now, while hopes do not quite abound, they certainly skip a little. Gareth Bale's emergence is just one reason why a disorderly queue has not been formed by Wales fans looking to leap off the Severn Bridge. The 18-year-old left-back truly is a giddying talent and saying hello to him eased the blow of saying goodbye to Ryan Giggs. Who says left feet don't grow on trees?
Republic of Ireland
4 out of 10
Four wins out of twelve, two of them against San Marino; 17 goals, seven of them against San Marino – this was the least convincing, least enjoyable, most acrimonious Republic of Ireland campaign for at least two decades. Along the way, manager Steve Staunton was sacked, the last match being overseen by caretaker Don Givens.
Staunton's credibility, which was already in question due to his managerial inexperience, never recovered from the stupendous 5-2 defeat in Cyprus in October last year. It has gone down as one of the worst days in modern Irish football.
After that, an already less than deferential media and public soured. Staunton was unable to explain his sometimes questionable selections in terms of personnel, and positionally, with Sir Bobby Robson having to rush to mount last-ditch defences.
The Football Association of Ireland finally lost patience after another disappointing performance and result against Cyprus at Croke Park, and now the search is on for a permanent successor with Terry Venables the favourite. Gérard Houllier is also understood to have conveyed his interest in the post to the FAI.
Whoever gets the job will inherit a reasonable squad, with Robbie Keane at one end and Shay Given at the other. Damien Duff has resumed training with Newcastle and Richard Dunne has been a solid centre-half. John O'Shea, Steve Finnan and Andy Reid offer further experience and talent.
Then there is Stephen Ireland, whose "dead granny" excuse in September will always be a symbol of a strange campaign. But Ireland can play, if his mind is right. He and Reid are creative midfielders many sides would want to have. Another prospect is Kevin Doyle, who made his competitive international debut this campaign.
Quite how such a squad finished 12 points behind group winners the Czech Republic is the subject of sustained debate, but the upside is that the Republic finished third and should be seeded accordingly in Sunday's World Cup qualifying draw. Irish supporters may not believe it, but it could have been worse.
Michael WalkerReuse content