Wet, windswept Glasgow Airport, 8am. Players, officials (aka "fat cats"), scribes and snappers assemble. The Under-21s look young enough to be sponsored by Mothercare, and there is an unfamiliar face with the "big team". Brian McAllister plays for Wimbledon, which had led some of the company to expect a shaved head and a ghetto-blaster. He has the wholesome appearance of a Blue Peter presenter.
A quiet flight; Craig Brown's players pride themselves in not indulging in the "dentist's chair" drinking antics associated with a certain Rangers midfielder. On landing at Riga, the Latvian capital, the terminal is closed due to a small fire (or a "raging inferno", depending on your newspaper). The entire party has to wait in a yard behind some industrial units for their bags.
Riding on the media bus is a Scot who now runs a travel firm in our next stop, Estonia. Chris McLean, former SNP press officer, followed the national team there in '93, stayed and married "a local lassie". Riga by night in the post-Soviet era has a surprising number of "Irish" pubs, in which kilted Tartan Army footsoldiers revel in bemused local scrutiny. There is also a shortage of cars (pleasing) and street lighting (disturbing).
Even in the rain Riga's potential as a "leisure destination" is evident. Like a scaled-down Sof-ia or Bucharest, it has faded grandeur but none of their ugly, jerry-built blocks of flats. A plaque on one crumbling building announces that Sergei Eisenstein, film-maker to the Russian Revolution, lived there. Nearby, a symbol of the 1990s revolution, McDonald's, does brisk trade.
The average wage is 80 Lats (roughly pounds 80) per month, putting the goods in the city-centre stores way beyond the reach of most Latvians. Disappointingly for this proud owner of a Russian copy of "Rubber Soul" - vinyl 12in, with title in Cyrillic script - it is a strictly CD (Costly Disc) town. However (cue Hovis ad music) the trolley bus and tram live on.
In the dilapidated Daugava Stadium, Scotland are on a hiding to nothing. In fact, they give Latvia a hiding, two-nothing. John Collins scores a fabulous goal and Andy Goram makes a Banks-v-Pele save. But the better known McAllister, Gary, gets booked and is suspended for the Estonia game.
The players do not shower at the ground, where facilities resemble a typhoid trap. A piper in full regalia gives them a musical send-off while 800 Scots supporters repeatedly sing that old, heather-scorching battle hymn, "Doe, Rae, Me" from The Sound of Music.
Ray, a drop of Golden Sun. Where the seniors played in murky mist and rain, the Under-21s' 0-0 draw takes place in gorgeous autumn sunshine. At half-time, Brown and his men share their Scottish FA-issue chocolate with their followers. One maintains he has never seen, let alone eaten, a "raw" (that is, not deep-fried) Mars bar.
The intrepid travelling fans recount their escapades. Those caught relieving themselves against the stadium wall the previous night were fined anything from pounds 5 to pounds 30 on the spot; the enterprise culture at work. One Scot, having sensitively removed hammer-and-sickle insignia from a hat bought in Moscow, returned from the loo in a bar to find it burnt by Latvians. Another, whose taxi driver had no change for a five-Lat note, was given two fish instead.
And so to Estonia, a 0-minute flight away. Like Latvia, they played under their own flag from 1921 until a particularly invidious protocol between Hitler and Stalin led to their incorporation into the Soviet Union. Perestroika and the Moscow coup of '91 signalled the rush to freedom. After centuries of being fought over by Russia and Germany, their footballers should be acquainted with the principle of counter-attack.
Estonia's people and language appear more Scandinavian than their Baltic neighbours. The capital is home to a third of the 1.3 million inhabitants, a remarkable 52 per cent of whom hold Russian nationality.
Tourist highspots include Kiek in der Kok, an ancient tower rather than a monument to Neil Ruddock. The name, derived from Low German, means "peep into the kitchen" because soldiers could watch women cooking from its windows. The original mediaeval walled city, known as Old Town, boasts a captivating cobbled square where Harry Lime might have lurked in a doorway.
Not to mention a Scottish bar. The Pub With No Name is run by David Coutts, an ex-SNP councillor in Dundee. Tonight, with sponsorship by the Daily Star of Scotland, it brings Caledonian culture to the deprived masses of Tallinn. Not Rabbie Burns, or even Billy Connolly, but a wet T-shirt competition. The Finnish girlfriend of a Scotland fan wins after her Estonian rival refuses to bare her breasts to the leering throng.
The injured John Spencer, court jester to the squad, follows Gary McAllister in flying home early. Stuart McCall is also nursing a strain from Riga, leaving no fewer than nine of Brown's original 22 unavailable. With Rangers playing Ajax next week, the manager will not want to jeopardise the champions' goodwill by returning McCall lame to Ibrox.
For the fans, filling in the time between games is about more than getting bevvied. Some 100 tartan-clad Scots join a solemn march of remembrance in the drizzle for the 852 people who died in the SS Estonia ferry disaster two years ago.
After the Under-21 match, which Scotland won 1-0, the SFA's concern about the floodlighting at the tiny Kadriorg Stadium mounts. Fifa's version of Dickie Bird takes a damning light-meter reading; Brown takes a dim view and announces that Scotland will play, but under protest.
Overnight, Fifa, the world governing body, unilaterally switches kick- off from 6.5pm to 3pm. Estonia refuse to comply, and with the Tartan Army singing "We only play in the daylight" Scotland kick off against no one. The referee's whistle ensures that "game" is all over before anyone can say, "It is now." Only Billy Dodds and John Collins have touched the ball, yet the press box is in a panic over the age-old question: "Who passed to who?"
Brown's players change back in to civvies. Dodds, starting his first international, fears he may never get another chance: "I'm gutted... it's like losing a cup final." At 5.15 the Estonian team arrive and go through the motions of preparing to play. The lights flicker into feeble life.
Collins, captain for the first time, reveals that the referee checked their studs and wished him "Good luck" as they shook hands. Paul Lambert says he was ordered to tuck his shirt in. "Good job we didn't lose the toss," quips Jim Leighton, while Brown's self-mocking satisfaction at "another clean sheet" is tempered by the realisation that "we hardly crossed the half-way line all afternoon."
Mixed emotions, too, on the flight home, divided between a feeling that Scotland had played fair with Estonia and a sense of anticlimax. Among the fans arriving back the next morning is the winner of the wet T-shirt contest. It turns out that her prize is pounds 200 plus a trip to Edinburgh. She lives in Edinburgh.Reuse content