It’s fair to say that when it comes to growing up a Scotland fan, I got my timings horribly wrong. Some of my earliest footballing memories come from Scotland’s appearances at Euro ’96 and France ’98: Colin Hendry leading us out to face the English in that magnificent tartan kit; John Collins drawing us level against holders Brazil in the World Cup’s opening game. Those may have been glorious failures, but they were perhaps the last time Scotland felt relevant on the world stage, competing well against the biggest names in international football as the entire globe watched on. They also both took place when I was a child, and almost everything since has been hellish.
Berti Vogts ushered in my teenage Scotland supporting years with an absolute bùrach of a team, all shambolic formations and undeserving caps. Walter Smith briefly restored respectability and hope before jumping ship to Rangers and leaving us back in the guddle from which he had so briefly elevated us. McLeish came and went (twice). Burley and Levein never seemed to have faith in their players, despite presiding over a team of real talent that seemed to have the potential to break Scotland’s major tournament duck.
And then there was Gordon Strachan. This was an appointment that gave me real, genuine hope. The man had a very decent CV in England, perhaps most notably elevating Southampton to more than the sum of their parts in the top flight, combining tactical stability with enough flair to keep things interesting. His Celtic tenure had been similarly impressive, as he took them out of the Champions League group stages for the first time (and took an epoch-defining AC Milan side to extra time in the knockouts), then repeated the feat the following season, despite not having the financial muscle afforded to predecessor Martin O’Neill. This was someone the Scotland fans thought would bring tactical discipline, personality and a bit of confidence to our battered national team. And he did…for a while.
Strachan took over in the middle of a campaign which Levein had already ruined, and he made the most of his free swing with encouraging home and away victories against Croatia. His first full campaign, qualifying for the newly expanded Euro 2016, saw Scotland go unbeaten against Poland and Ireland (our main rivals for second place), but still somehow conspire to come fourth in the group after Strachan appeared to lose all trust in his team’s abilities halfway through the campaign. This made for a particularly galling summer for Scotland fans, who had to watch from home as the likes of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Hungary graced the finals with groups of players who in many cases wouldn’t have made our squad, let alone our starting XI – a clear nod towards the superior management those countries were enjoying.
Strachan’s third (and final) campaign, qualification for the Russia 2018 World Cup, saw the Scots come out of the hat alongside Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta, but nobody in Scotland noticed any of that. There was only one name in the group which anyone cared about; England. The oldest rivals in world football had not faced each other in a competitive match in almost 20 years, and a few friendly skirmishes had whetted the appetite for the real thing. There was some confidence on the part of the Tartan Army that their heroes could give England (fresh from Euro 2016 embarrassment at the hands of Iceland) a game, and the rest of the group looked decidedly tricky but not impossible to navigate.
The group did not start well, with a higgledy-piggledy win in Malta, followed by a desperately poor home draw against Lithuania, and a comprehensive away defeat to Slovakia. England at Wembley was a fantastic trip for the thousands of Tartan Army footsoldiers who followed the path so well trodden by their fathers and mothers in the old Home Championships days, but on the pitch, a well organised Scotland was dispatched 3-0 by a technically superior England team. A great away day, perhaps, but not a great result.
Qualification was looking like a forlorn hope for Scotland, but a fine 1-0 home win against Slovenia in the next match meant that, when England visited Glasgow in June 2017, the fans knew another good result could kickstart Scotland’s campaign.
The match was a Hampden sell-out, a depressingly rare event in recent times. The long-suffering fans who had packed out the North and West Stands through miserable drizzly midweek disappointment after disappointment, suddenly found that their Scotland season tickets were the hottest brief in town, as the entire country strained at the opportunity to see the country’s finest go toe-to-toe with the Auld Enemy.
And why shouldn’t we be hopeful of springing a surprise? Strachan, finding himself on the ropes after the Slovakia defeat and needing a quick turnaround to save his job, seemed to have let the handbrake off a little in the games that followed. There was a renewed faith in the attacking talents of his team and finally making full use of players such as Leigh Griffiths and James Forrest, who were setting the heather alight at Celtic under Brendan Rogers.
On the day of the England match, the famous old ground of Hampden Park was at it’s noisy, raucous best. Flower of Scotland rang out with a passion and conviction that was in stark contrast to the renditions at the games against Lithuania and Slovenia, when a half full ground sang it out of duty rather than excitement. The starting line-ups added to the optimism around the ground: exciting full-backs Tierney and Robertson flanked the defence, Armstrong and Snodgrass formed part of a progressive looking midfield, and, most importantly, the sparky and goal-hungry Griffiths was in his rightful place upfront (rather than lumbering Strachan favourites such as Chris Martin or Stevie Fletcher). Scotland’s line-up was technically inferior to an England team containing Kane, Rashford and Alli, of course, but not so much that a result would be impossible. The Tartan Army dared to dream.
The game was cagey but well contested, England having the better chances but Scotland competing well and causing problems on the break. Griffiths, who had yet to score for Scotland and had been underused by the national team despite his impressive scoring record at club level, was a regular pest to the England defence. A Tierney clearance off the line in the first half and England hitting the post in the second gave the feeling that this just might be Scotland’s day, and the crowd responded accordingly.
England deflated that feelgood factor by scoring in the 70th minute, substitute Oxlade-Chamberlain showing his quality to skip through the Scottish defence and hammer the ball past a flailing Craig Gordon. It looked like that might be the end of the matter, with Scotland struggling to create enough clear chances to get back into the match. However, with the game approaching its conclusion, Gary Cahill conceded a free-kick a little way outside of the box with a high foot challenge on Ryan Fraser. Griffiths stepped up, the slightly off centre location being ideally suited to his left foot. He curled the ball beautifully around the English wall and into the net to the right of Joe Hart, who was at full stretch but couldn’t get near it. The West Stand went mental, the beauty of the goal and the imminent possibility of a draw against England creating a heady cocktail of excitement and relief. With just a few minutes of the match remaining, how could we possibly be denied the point, and with it some restoration of battered pride in a once-even rivalry that modern football ensured would become increasingly one-sided?
The drama wasn’t quite done there, though. With Scotland surfing the wave of enthusiasm that had engulfed the stadium, they soon found themselves awarded another free-kick, this time as a result of a fairly spurious dive by Chris Martin. The genesis of the free-kick may not have been ideal, but it’s location was – it seemed to be in almost the exact spot that Griffiths had scored from just minutes before. There was a delightful sense of déja vu as Griffiths lined up an exact replica of his goal: England’s wall split into two just inside the box; Armstrong standing to the left of the ball (although this time surely with no real intention of taking the kick); Griffiths surveying the scene from a few paces back, hands on hips and left leg forward. The only thing that had changed was Hart’s position – he had moved from the centre to the right this time, keen not to be mugged off again. But Hart underestimated Griffiths’ dead ball ability, and by moving so far to the right he had left a huge section of his goal open for business. Griffiths didn’t need to be told twice, and this time sent the ball curling beautifully to the left hand side of the goal, as well placed as his shot to the opposite side had been. Hart dived at full stretch, but once again the Englishman had just too much to do. Scotland were in front.
The aftermath was carnage, on a scale that only football can ever deliver. Griffiths went charging over to the celebrating fans in the north-west corner of Hampden. “Catch him if you can,” said commentator Martin Tyler, “Catch Scotland if you can!”. In the stands, a generation of hurt, frustration, anger and drudgery melted off the shoulders of 50,000 Scots. People jumped, shouted, screamed, clapped – did anything to physically manifest the utter joy and disbelief that was flowing through them. “I’ve not seen a celebration in a football ground like this for a long, long, long time” said co-commentator Gary Neville. “That moment is just a blur of bodies, throat-wrenching cheers and disbelief,” according to BBC Sport journalist Thomas Duncan, who was at the match. “Having lived through the darkest period in the national team’s history, I hadn’t experienced many truly memorable moments at Hampden, but whatever happens that second free-kick will be hard to top.”
From my own spot in the north-west corner of the ground, where I had witnessed so much pain over the years, it felt like a vindication of every awful moment I had suffered as a Scotland fan. A burly guy who had stood two rows behind me for the last few years was suddenly hanging on my shoulder, knocking my glasses into the row in front. I didn’t care. It was the purest, most magnificent feeling I have ever witnessed in a lifetime of attending football at club and international level, and I didn’t want it to end. The game was over, we had beaten England in the most satisfying way possible, we were right back in the mix for the World Cup, and I would be able to tell my grandchildren I was there. What’s more, my spot had such a perfect view of the two free kicks that it almost felt the whole thing had been orchestrated for me, Scotland’s apology to a fan who had been through more thin than thick over the years.
Except, sadly, the game wasn’t quite over. Whilst the clock may have shown 90 minutes had elapsed, Scotland have a curious and well-practised ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As England, desperate to avoid what would (sadly) have been a shock defeat, pressed everything they had forward, all Scotland needed was to do was be a little bit canny and a little bit lucky. In the end, they were neither. Kane was awarded a soft foul as he cutely tangled himself up with a Scotland defender, but Craig Gordon parried away the ensuing free kick. The ball fell to Stuart Armstrong at the edge of the box, who had space to his left to run off into the corner and see out the game. Instead, he chose to try to pass to the right and release Griffiths into space. It was a terrible decision by a player who had performed so well all day. The pass was intercepted, England slung a long ball into the box and captain Harry Kane found himself in enough space to score a first time volley and break Scottish hearts. “Everyone still talks about Stuart Armstrong’s decision to pass short rather than hoof the ball up the park,” says Thomas Duncan, “and to be honest that’s the sight that is etched in my brain.”
“The high of going in front made Kane’s equaliser all the more gut-wrenching,” recalls Duncan. “I think every football fan knows the moment well. You stand and watch the ball go into your team’s net, and the next thing you hear is the eruption of celebrations in the away end. I was just standing staring blankly at the white shirts jumping up and down, enjoying the same release we had had not long before.”
The game ended in a 2-2 draw. In truth, it was no more than England deserved, and was a result most Scotland fans would have bitten your hand off for if you’d offered it before the game started (or, indeed, if you’d offered it in the 86th minute). But it felt horribly cruel, like the victory had been stolen away from Scotland.
The draw with England was the catalyst for a fine run of form for Scotland, with Strachan seeming to renew his love affair with the team. The Celtic contingent remained key cogs in the side, who replaced the pedestrian football of the early matches with a more purposeful and attacking style. Put simply, Scotland’s predicament meant Strachan was forced to roll the dice in every match and it paid off spectacularly. Lithuania were dispatched with ease in Vilnius, Malta were beaten at Hampden and, most impressively, Slovakia were also toppled in Glasgow after another late show. A win away to Slovenia would have guaranteed second place (although it only became clear afterwards that this would be enough to secure qualification). Sadly, a combination of a nervous Strachan reverting to his cautious former tactics and Slovenia being a really rather decent side meant that Scotland could only take a 2-2 draw from that match. Scotland ended the group third on goal difference with 18 points, and had to once again watch on when the greatest show on Earth started in Russia the following summer.
But on that glorious June day at Hampden, when that second goal rippled the net of an opponent who we faced in the first ever international football match, when it looked for a few minutes like we might take three points in a lopsided rivalry against a country ten times our size, none of that future context mattered. That was football ecstasy in its purest, most delirious form, and I hope that every football fan (even the English ones!) gets to experience that feeling at least once in their lives.