Confidence tricksters

Neil Forsyth, like millions of Scots, is still pinching himself after James McFadden’s winner in Paris gave the team a sight of Euro 2008. What will Berti Vogts make of it?

Before the memorable night of September 12, Scotland’s last visit to play France in Paris had been a friendly in March 2002. That was the first game in charge of Scotland for Berti Vogts.

The winner of Euro 96, it was trumpeted, could lead Scotland to the higher reaches of international football. He was the man to demonstrate that the traditional reserves of tenaciousness and courage (or the ability to run about and tackle a lot) needed some continental refinement. The team were then pumped 5-0, with Vogts afterwards pondering aloud about a lack of spirit.

From there, if anything, things got worse. Scotland became a tactically confused side with a lack of confidence that filtered down from the management. Vogts extended a player search that grew ludicrous in its scope as unlikely internationalists were made and often immediately abandoned. Even the Tartan Army, that rabble of optimism in adversity, became gloomy and accusatory.

Fast forward to that incredible night at the Parc des Princes in September. The team went out with tactics that can, oversimplistically, be reduced to running about and tackling a lot, and came back with a victory that was instantly hailed as one of the nation’s best ever. It wasn’t just the sheer effort and bravery from the players that impressed, but the calm confidence exuded by a team that leans heavily on prodigious youth.

The Scottish bench (consisting of the ginger Alex McLeish, the bald Andy Watson and the craggy Roy Aitken) looked like a seating row on a Glasgow-Magaluf budget flight. If they had watched the game while playing cards and knocking back miniatures, it would not have disturbed the scene.

The winner – James McFadden’s swerving piece of audacity that deserves the accolade of howitzer perhaps more than any other shot ever struck – was a piece of scrappy mischievousness that could have been exported from any Scottish playground. “Gallusness”, said a proud McLeish in the post-match interview, before immediately apologising to “Sky listeners” who may not have understood a term for the national strain of cockiness.

All this, together with the 20,000-strong Tartan Army who dominated the stadium’s acoustics after astounding Parisians with an organised march through the city from the Eiffel Tower, created an atmosphere that could only have been more Scottish with the appointment of Supergran as ref and Jimmy Krankie as head ballboy. Sometimes, it seems, you should stick with what you know.

McLeish and the squad deserve the wave of praise that arrived after Paris. When the Scotland manager got off the flight back to Glasgow he found himself with “about 83 missed calls”, which included the numbers of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and, thrillingly, pop legend Lulu.

Many have pointed to the solid foundations laid by Walter Smith before absconding to Rangers, and you do hope that Lulu at least sent Smith a text message. Smith’s contribution should not be devalued, but it also meant McLeish was faced with the tricky demand of maintaining a resurgence when the creator had departed.

The end result is that Scotland are currently rated as the 14th best team in the world and, more important, have a real chance of qualifying for Euro 2008 from one of the most demanding sections. To make it for sure, McLeish’s side need seven points from their last three Group B encounters – Ukraine at home and Georgia away in October, before Italy visit Hampden in November for a match that could be one of the country’s most important of all time.

It’s a tough proposition, but Scotland have both the confidence and the talent to have a decent stab at it. The experience of David Weir and Barry Ferguson is blending seamlessly with the youthful promise of Craig Gordon, Scott Brown and Darren Fletcher among others. And then there is the swaggering McFadden, who has now nicked stunning goals against both Holland and France and “wants to nutmeg all the best players on the pitch”, according to team-mate Graham Alexander.

The closing matches will prove the greatest challenge yet in this exhilarating campaign, where qualification has progressed from the realms of fantasy to a definite possibility. And if McLeish’s men do make it, then it will be an achievement not just celebrated, but also made in Scotland.

From WSC 249 November 2007


Comments (1)
Comment by Applemask 2012-05-29 16:50:18

Both Walter Smith and Alex McLeish, especially Alex McLeish, should hang their heads. Someone waves a fiver under their noses and they abandon their national team right on the point of actual success. And in McLeish's case, that someone was Birmingham bloody City.