How Scotland qualified for Euro 2024 – and why Germany will be different

Steve Clarke has led Scotland to next summer’s tournament with two games to spare, and now the Tartan Army have reason to dream

Jamie Braidwood
Monday 16 October 2023 22:49 BST
Scotland qualify for Euro 2024 after Spain beat Norway
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Serial qualifiers? It’s still too early to say, but for any Scotland supporter who cannot remember the 1998 World Cup in France or the years before, these are dizzying times indeed. The Tartan Army are heading to Euro 2024, their second successive appearance at the European Championships, and just their second men’s major international tournament in 25 years. Hampden has rediscovered its roar, and it is set to carry Scotland on their march to Germany next summer; tens of thousands will make the journey –many had already booked their tickets before this weekend – and it is all thanks, by and large, to Steve Clarke.

If Clarke has brought the good times back, it is worth remembering the dark days he inherited on his appointment in 2019. Scotland were barely able to fill half of Hampden as their men’s major tournament drought extended past two decades. A 3-0 defeat to Kazakhstan proved to be the end for Clarke’s predecessor, Alex McLeish, and rock bottom for Scotland; there was no hope, and no hint of the immense progress Clarke has since been able to achieve with what are still fairly limited resources.

Automatic qualification from a tricky Group A was secured with two games to go, owed to a phenomenal start that featured the stunning wins against Spain at Hampden and Norway in Oslo. After the ultimately disappointing performances at the Covid-delayed Euro 2020 finals and defeat to an inspired Ukraine in the play-offs for the 2022 World Cup, Scotland took to their task with focus and clarity, forged from the cohesion and spirit Clarke has brought to the national team over the course of his tenure. If Scotland are famously one of those sides that always do things the hard way, progress to Euro 2024 has been serene by comparison.

Under the guidance of the calm and measured Clarke, Scotland has become an environment where players want to play, mirroring a club side with the relationships within the group and the organisation of their approach. There can be no doubting anyone’s commitment to the Scotland cause – and that has not always been the case in recent years – while Clarke’s management style is to never allow anyone to get too high or feel too low. For all that Scotland’s 2-0 victory over Spain in March was a memorable night at Hampden, the key to qualification was that Clarke ensured his squad kept their feet on the ground when there was still a job to be done.

Clarke would be the first to point out that further improvements are still required ahead of Euro 2024 – England’s performance and Jude Bellingham’s class at Hampden last month made that perfectly clear – but Scotland will head to Germany believing they can be much more competitive than when they returned from the international wilderness. For one, that long wait, with the emotions it brought with it, is over. Scotland’s squad is settled and largely unchanged from the summer of 2021, and Clarke’s team have the experience of a major tournament to build on.

And, as anyone who celebrated a significant birthday, a graduation, or a wedding will remember, the summer of 2021 was a strange time, with the UK only just coming out of spells of Covid lockdown. Scotland’s return required the full experience of the Tartan Army, especially with two games at Hampden and a third against England at Wembley, but a long-awaited party was dampened. Germany will bring full numbers and see Scotland at full voice; it will undoubtedly help a team who will aim to punch above their weight.

Scotland dared to dream after beating Spain at Hampden
Scotland dared to dream after beating Spain at Hampden (Getty)

While there is a notion that successive appearances at the European Championships are a sign of some sort of Scottish “golden generation”, the reality is somewhat different. This Scotland squad certainly has talent and quality, but it is also one with gaps and holes, and is far weaker than the results under Clarke suggest. But the 60-year-old has found solutions and made improvements with the options at his disposal, while creating a culture within the group that has lifted standards and expectations. In simple terms, it is astute management at every level.

Scotland, for a while, seemed cursed by having two world-class players in Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney, but both being left-backs. There is now a genuine partnership between Robertson and Tierney within Clarke’s system, which is built upon a back three that has kept four clean sheets in six games so far in qualifying. Angus Gunn has made an assured start at goalkeeper after taking over from the veterans David Marshall and Craig Gordon, while Aaron Hickey represents a significant upgrade on Stephen O’Donnell at right wing-back – which was another problem position at Euro 2020.

The lack of a world-class striker – the Tartan Army would accept at least one Premier League-calibre option, with both Lyndon Dykes and Che Adams plying their trade in the Championship this season – has been mitigated as well. For all that Dykes and Adams have always put in huge shifts when leading the line, often a thankless task in any case, Scotland’s goals have been scored by another player with whom Clarke has performed miracles – Scott McTominay.

McTominay was key to qualification with six goals from midfield
McTominay was key to qualification with six goals from midfield (Getty)

Underappreciated and perennially dismissed at Manchester United, and used as a centre-back at Euro 2020 as his country struggled to fit him into the side, McTominay has been the revelation of Scotland’s campaign. Deployed now as an attacking midfielder and given licence to break forward into the box, McTominay’s return of six goals in as many games has been beyond anyone’s expectations – as many as Erling Haaland.

That McTominay’s success has come within the organisation and structure Clarke has installed is no coincidence; international tournaments often show how countries can rise as a collective, and Morocco, Switzerland and Wales are also recent examples that will give Scotland hope that they can extend their trip to Germany by reaching the knockout stages.

“I said after Euro 2020 that we wanted to be serial qualifiers again, and reaching successive Euro finals shows the progress we’ve made,” said Clarke, typically level even as Scotland’s progress was confirmed. “We will raise a glass tonight to celebrate, but then it’s back to work tomorrow in preparation for our friendly against France.” There will have been many back home, however, who will have instead been raising a glass to him, much longer into the night.

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