Scots seek to end run of heroic failures

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

There are only two specific goals commemorated at the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park.

A model is laid out of Archie Gemmill’s famous dribble and shot against Holland in the 1978 World Cup, so visitors can, by placing their feet on the white footprints on the ground, trace his steps in slaloming through lunging white-shirted defenders before
clipping the ball past Dirk Jongbloed.

The other is more recent: James McFadden’s winner against France in September. Being a swerving drive from 35 yards, it is represented not by a vast swathe of empty green carpet, but by the more practical means of a photograph.

Perhaps the haste with which that strike has been recorded for posterity hints at a certain desperation, but even so, the willingness to equate it with Gemmill’s strike suggests how much it meant to Scottish football. It was the moment at which the dark days of former manager Berti Vogts’ reign, when Scotland slipped to 86th in the world rankings, were officially over.

The irony is that if that goal were really to mean something – qualification for a major tournament after a 10-year absence – McFadden’s strike would almost certainly have to be eclipsed, in importance if not in quality, by one on Saturday afternoon.

Having battled so hard and so well for so long, Alex McLeish’s side will only be sure of qualifying for next year’s European Championships if they beat Italy, the world champions, at Hampden on Saturday. If they draw, Scotland will be relying on either the Faroe Islands, who are yet to win a point, getting at least a draw away to Italy or, more plausibly, Ukraine beating France in Kiev next Wednesday.

Still, for now McFadden’s goal stands as the highlight of a thrilling campaign that has re-energised Scottish football. The build-up to today’s game has been more fevered than any since the defeat to England in a play-off for Euro 2000.

“Even when you go down the garage you have people wishing you well,” Scotland’s captain Barry Ferguson said on Friday. “I’m not used to that. You usually just get anger.”

There has been, if not anger, then at least disparagement from Scotland’s opponents, with many in France complaining – as Barcelona’s Lionel Messi did of Rangers in the Champions League – that they play ”anti-football”.

McLeish, though, has made clear his willingness to win ugly if need be.

“The players have been successful so far because of their application and work ethic,” he said. “We’ll have to work harder than Italy because they play the ball with more economy than
we do.”

And Scotland fans could not care less. The good luck messages have been flooding in, including one from Sir Sean Connery. On Friday McLeish would not reveal its contents.

“I might use it in the dressing-room,” he said, before lapsing into a Connery impersonation. “It’sh a shecret.”

His willingness to joke hints at a relaxed mood, and that perhaps is an acknowledgement that even to get this far has been an extraordinary effort. The manager, though, is determined that the thought of what has already been achieved should not be allowed to become some kind of comfort blanket.

“We were tipped to come fourth in the group, so we’ve exceeded that,” he said. “That’s progress. We may not win this game, but we won’t bottle it. The players don’t fear failure, but you don’t know how the players feel when they’ve lost a game.”

The fear, however, must still be that this becomes just one more glorious defeat. Braveheart, the fetishisation of which is one of the more tedious aspects of modern Scottish sport, ends in martyrdom.

Even Gemmill’s goal came in a 3-2 victory that was not quite good enough to take Scotland through to the next round. Heroic failure is so much a part of Scottish heritage it is practically a tourist attraction.

For all the progress that has been made by McLeish’s team, the likelihood is that they will fall victim to an all too familiar trope.

That might improve their Uefa coefficient, and so gain them a higher seeding when the draw for the next set of qualifiers comes around, but that is hardly a substitute for being in Austria or Switzerland next summer.

Progress is progress, but heroic failure is still failure.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.