3 September ~ An unfamiliar sensation is taking hold of a significant proportion of Scotland fans, and not just because of our recent victory at the Homeless World Cup. At first glance everything seems wearily familiar: four points from four Euro 2012 qualifying games (mostly thanks to our 96th-minute winner against Liechtenstein), a FIFA ranking of 55th and the continued heart-stopping presence of Gary Caldwell in defence. All while our clubs lose in Europe. Next up are the Czech Republic. So why do we feel cautiously optimistic?
Admittedly it's mostly because the Czechs aren't quite as formidable as they were a few years ago. But it's also because we're showing tentative signs of improvement. A dramatic 3-2 defeat to Spain, a friendly victory over a reasonably strong Danish side and a respectable performance in the world-famous Carling Nations Cup have all provided the heady excitement of slight encouragement.
And we've suddenly got depth. Not necessarily strength in depth, and definitely not in all positions, but we now know what it feels like to have choice, particularly in midfield, with promising young players like Robert Snodgrass, Graham Dorrans and Barry Bannan competing against the likes of Scott Brown and James Morrison to accompany Steven Naismith, Charlie Adam and Darren Fletcher. Ironically, it may be the financial weakness of the SPL that's helping the national side. Clubs are being forced to develop young talent and more and more Scottish players are moving to – and developing in – England.
If we continue to play as surprisingly competently as we have been since that classically Scottish heroic defeat to Spain, there's a gathering feeling that we needn't fear anyone (other than Spain, of course). Even dropping to the fourth pot of seeds for World Cup qualifying has demonstrated how little there is to choose between so many mid-ranking European teams, with our draw no tougher than usual.
So it's all in our hands. We can win our next three games (Lithuania visit Hampden after the Czechs, then we're away to Liechtenstein). Nine points would edge us ahead of the Czech Republic in the race for the play-off position. So put your money on Scotland 0 Czech Republic 0, the inevitable heartbreaking result that will effectively put us out and make us feel extremely foolish for ever daring to succumb to seductive cautious optimism. Mark Poole the wee man