In the eleven qualification campaigns since the 1998 World Cup, poor management, squad in-fighting, an abrasive fan culture and general decline in player quality, among other problems, has so far combined to see Scotland miss out on five World Cups and six European Championships.  

At the end of part one, Scotland and their now-settled manager, Walter Smith, appeared to be turning the tide of some of the disastrous events from previous qualifying campaigns, shoring up the defence and once again playing with an air of belief.  

This second instalment picks up with Scotland set to begin their qualification campaign for Euro 2008.

Euro 2008

Scotland’s campaign to qualify for Euro 2008 had it all: a supposed group of death including the most recent World Cup finalists, managerial changes, refereeing conspiracies, the highest of highs, but ultimately still the lowest of lows, too. 

Perhaps the most unexpected event was Scotland finding themselves leading qualifying group B after three games. They had begun by exacting revenge on the Faroe Islands, in the form of a 6-0 defeat at Hampden Park, then followed that with a 2-1 victory away to Lithuania.

Raymond Domenech then brought his France team to Hampden Park having also won both of their opening games, but his team proved no match for Scotland’s staunch defence and surprisingly improved efficiency in front of goal, as they sent Thierry Henry and co. home, defeated by a Gary Caldwell header. A last-minute chance for Henry may have set pulses racing, but his tame header just before the final whistle encapsulated the changed fortunes for the Scots over their first three games. 

Where once points were needlessly dropped, results were now fought out, like in the 2-1 win in Lithuania, and while the seconds preceding Henry’s header may have conjured up images of Daniel Van Buyten’s late equaliser for Belgium in Euro 2000 qualifying, this time Scotland held on for all three vital points. 

This result meant that for the first time since the 1998 World Cup Qualifiers, Scotland topped their qualifying group. Even defeat to a talented Ukraine side in their next group game could not change this, with their 2-0 loss still seeing them top Group B ahead of World Cup finalists France and Italy.

However, with the team excelling on the pitch, matters off of it threatened to derail an almost flawless campaign. On 10th January, Walter Smith resigned from the national set-up to return to Rangers, and with only a quarter of the group games completed, there was a feeling that Smith had left his country in the lurch.

At the time, little sympathy was afforded to Smith, as Scottish FA statements talked of legal action. Predictably, a compensation package was agreed days later, allowing the SFA to focus on their search for a new manager. Alex McLeish was chosen as Smith’s successor, and after a turbulent January, Scotland could once again focus on cementing their position at the top of group B and qualifying for Euro 2008.

A 2-1 debut victory against Georgia ensured a positive start for McLeish, but his new side was less convincing four days later in Bari, as unanswered goals in each half from Luca Toni saw Scotland drop to second in group B.  

An unsettling start to 2007 could have totally derailed Scotland’s qualifying hopes, having lost both their manager and place atop the group. However, McLeish and his players responded with a run of four consecutive victories. Routine wins over the Faroes and Lithuania started this run, but few expected what was to come in the third game, as the team travelled to the Parc des Princes to face France. 

Picking up from almost exactly where the corresponding fixture had ended, France dominated the ball. While the October 2006 game felt as though the Scots were simply hanging on, September’s game felt like a regimented game plan imposed by McLeish. An astute defensive performance from Alan Hutton, David Weir, Graham Alexander and Stephen McManus meant that French possession rarely resulted in goal scoring opportunities, and even the loss of Darren Fletcher in midfield after only 26 minutes did not deter the night’s clear underdogs.

Many accepted that a point would have been sufficient in this game. Scotland would still have been in contention for one of the two qualifying places, and simply put, France did not lose at home, with only one away side inflicting a defeat on their territory in the previous 13 years.

Enter James McFadden; the quasi-midfielder-come-forward found space in the centre of France’s half to receive Craig Gordon’s goal kick directly to his feet. A deft touch of control allowed him to turn and face Mikaël Landreau’s goal. One final left-footed touch was required to get it out from under his feet, before his shot was finally let go. With breaths held around the stadium, the ball finally met the back of the net, queuing scenes of delirium and roars of celebration that had the Parc de Princes, for a brief moment, resembling Scotland’s Hampden Park home. 

In a matter of seconds, McFadden had cemented his place in the folklore of Scottish football. Stories of the strike in the years since have only added to its myth. At first, the strike was 30 yards from goal, then 40 and some may even argue 50. What was likely intended as a hopeful swing of the boot turned into a purposeful and precise shot, aimed and delivered into the top corner of the net. It has almost become a “where were you when?” moment in Scottish sport. For the record, a ten-year-old me was attempting – and failing – to split his attention between the next day’s homework and the game. 

Scotland held out for the remaining 25 minutes, and secured a historic 1-0 victory in Paris. The homework never was finished, such were the celebrations at the final whistle.

One month later another impressive win came against Ukraine, meaning victory against Georgia in their penultimate game would have secured qualification and appeased the woes of the previous four campaigns. Instead, it was now time for Scotland to suffer an upset of their own. 

Scotland were defeated 2-0 in Tbilisi, becoming only the second team from group B, after the Faroe Islands, to succumb to defeat against this Georgia side. With the France victory removing their underdog status, the team seemed to return to the habits of previous qualifying campaigns, where an away trip against an opposition many had expected them to roll-over had ended in a shock defeat. 

With both Italy and France possessing games in hand, victory in the final group game against the Italians was now needed to qualify. Despite that crushing blow away in Georgia, spirits remained high as the reigning world champions arrived in Glasgow. A bouncing atmosphere signified the return of the Scots’ underdog mentality and with it a subtle confidence that they could pull off one final upset.

Luca Toni clearly was not party to these plans. After only 60 seconds, Antonio Di Natale, unpressured by any Scottish defender, was allowed time to find Toni lurking six yards from the goal, with the Italian striker then duly finishing with a powerful header past Gordon. 

After the break, Italy’s dominance continued, but against the flow of the game, Scotland still managed to equalise. A poor McFadden free-kick saw the ball fired back into the penalty box, where legs were furiously thrown at it from both directions. Barry Ferguson got the vital touch and sent the ball past Gianluigi Buffon. A draw would leave Scotland with some hope of qualification. 

However, as the end of the match approached, Scotland’s fate would be firmly taken out of their own hands, and not by their Italian opponents, but by the game’s referee. As the clock reached the 90-minute mark, Alan Hutton found himself in possession of the ball near the corner flag deep in Scotland’s half. He was then pushed to the ground by Giorgio Chiellini, who had been sent on for the final seven minutes to cause exactly this sort of havoc on the Scotland defence.

Rather than award the free-kick to Scotland as almost everyone in the ground – bar Chiellini of course – expected, Manuel González awarded the decision in Italy’s favour. This mistake did not come without consequences, as Andrea Pirlo’s resulting free-kick found the head of Christian Panucci, who found himself as free as Luca Toni was in the game’s opening moments, and he too made no mistake with his header.

What was disgruntled disbelief had suddenly turned to infuriated rage. Scotland’s players continued to protest the referee’s decision up to and after the final whistle. Fans, meanwhile, cried conspiracy, adamant that UEFA had instructed González to do all that he could to ensure Scotland did not progress ahead of France and Italy, two of Europe’s premier draws to the watching audience of Euro 2008. 

With hindsight, this reaction now sounds outlandish – especially when revisiting the Scottish defending – but perhaps the Scots were simply moving through their own stages of grief, coming to terms with the loss of yet another major tournament. If Scotland’s fans were at the anger and bargaining stage, Alex McLeish certainly appeared at a stage of acceptance. His post-match interview was surprisingly lucid considering what had just happened, with his only mention of the free-kick incident being an admittance that he had not yet seen it back, but had been told it was wrongly awarded. Perhaps a different reaction would have come if he had had the chance to watch González’s decision back. 

Acceptance was perhaps the best place to be. It was Scotland’s best performance in a qualifying campaign this century, but it was still not enough. To paraphrase Rick Blaine in Casablanca, and almost every Scottish-based back page after that famous victory in France: We’ll always have Paris (and James McFadden).

 

2010 World Cup

Any hopes that a wave of momentum from the previous qualifying campaign would carry Scotland into a positive start in their quest to reach the 2010 World Cup were all but ruined before a ball was even kicked. Just three weeks after the defeat to Italy, Alex McLeish resigned as Scotland manager to join Birmingham City in the Premier League.

For the second time in less than a year, the SFA had been powerless to prevent the financial might of a club side convincing their manager to resign. If Smith’s departure for his beloved Rangers began feeling that the Scotland job may, in fact, be viewed as no more than stepping stone to a ‘bigger’, more financially rewarding job, McLeish moving down south to join a side in the Premier League relegation zone confirmed this new truth. 

George Burley was chosen as McLeish’s replacement, coming in fresh from an unsuccessful promotion push with Southampton in the Championship. His Scotland reign would begin in a similar vein, as Scotland failed to win any of the Ipswich Town legend’s first four games in charge, with the final one being a humiliating loss against Macedonia in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign. 

With pressure mounting, Burley and his team travelled to Iceland in desperate need of a result. They got what they came for, as McFadden once again stood out for Scotland in a 2-1 victory.  

However, this return to form did not last beyond that night in Reykjavik, with a dull 0-0 draw to Norway at home highlighting Scotland’s main problem so far: a lack of firing power. Unfortunately for Burley, this issue was only set to worsen, as in the aftermath of this game Kris Boyd announced his retirement from international football, so long as Burley remained the manager. 

Boyd’s grievances stemmed from a lack of playing time, having not started in any of the first three qualifiers. He was then incensed when, during the 0-0 draw with Norway, Wolves striker Chris Iwelumo was substituted on ahead of him as Scotland searched for a much needed, but ultimately absent goal. The fact that this also came just weeks after Lee McCulloch announced his retirement from the international set-up – for reasons unspecified at the time – led to accusations from the media that Burley’s training camps were unhappy places to be, and that he was in charge of an ultimately chaotic regime

Such reports were obviously played down by Burley and the SFA, but these allegations would raise their head once again at the Scotland squad’s next meeting, in March 2009, and have much more permanent and serious consequences. 

Following a predictable but still disappointing 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands, the next morning newspapers across the country unveiled the conduct of several senior players that night, as they hit the bar at their Cameron House Hotel and drank excessively, late into the night.

With another qualifier against Iceland only four days later, action had to be taken, and the two main culprits of ‘boozegate’, Allan McGregor and team captain Barry Ferguson, were dropped to the bench for that vital qualifier. Instead of accepting their punishment, however, both players were caught on camera making V-signs and smirking at each other as their teammates laboured to an unconvincing 2-1 victory. 

Their childish antics, however, did not go unnoticed. Both players were banned from representing Scotland by the SFA, in consultation with Burley. The scandal was ultimately a huge distraction for the Scotland manager and the rest of his squad and brought unwanted press attention. Player’s were either downing tools, like Boyd and McCulloch, or publicly mocking the set-up of the national team from the substitutes bench in the case of McGregor and Ferguson. Still, the SFA stuck with Burley, for now at least. 

As Scotland fans watched their team try to resurrect an extremely difficult campaign, they were only met with further disappointment. Another loss to Norway, by four goals to nil, meant that even victory in their final two games would not give them enough points to take part in the second-place playoffs. A dead-rubber victory over Macedonia and a 1-0 defeat to the Netherlands saw out the campaign, which was easily Scotland’s worst qualifying performance for a number of years.

Friendly defeats to Japan and Wales saw the thin threads holding Burley in his precarious position finally break, as he was sacked in November 2009. Despite their earlier grievances, Scotland fans may now have preferred the days when their managers were performing so well that clubs were fighting for their signatures. 

 

Euro 2012

Whoever was chosen to replace Burley at the helm of Scottish international football would face a serious rebuilding challenge. Whereas similar challenges for new appointees had existed in the past, this time the rebuild of morale and team spirit off the pitch took some precedence over on-field success. 

Craig Levein was the man tasked with this challenge. He was leaving behind a role as manager with Dundee United, where he had led the Tannadice club to consistent top-half finishes and two cup finals during his three-year tenure. Most appealingly, though, was his focus on and reshaping of a youth set-up that would, in the years to come, produce new talents like Ryan Gauld and John Souttar. 

These traits and the relatively poor reign of Burley meant that Levein was met with enthusiasm and a level of expectation when he took over in December 2009. Such feeling clearly also grasped several of his inherited players, as previous exiles Kris Boyd, Lee McCulloch, Allan McGregor and Barry Ferguson were all invited back into the international fold. All returned apart from Ferguson. 

This meant that despite a penchant for developing players previously, Levein’s first qualification campaign saw few new arrivals, with only Steven Naismith breaking into a more permanent position within the starting 11, having been used sparingly in previous campaigns. 

Failure to move away from some of the old-guard may have backfired, as Scotland opened their Group 9 qualifying campaign with a 0-0 draw in Lithuania and, while a 2-1 home win against Lichtenstein was hardly an inspiring result.

The following month, Scotland faced the much tougher prospect of the Czech Republic and Spain. Perhaps pre-empting the difficulty his side may face on their trip to Prague, Levein made a tactical decision that would come to define his tenure as Scotland manager. The 4-6-0 formation was not immediately obvious when the team sheets were released, with many assuming that Steven Naismith would fill the centre-forward role, flanked by Jamie Mackie and James Morrison. 

In reality, however, Levein’s plan was far more defensive-minded, despite the Czechs having failed to overly impress in their opening qualifiers. Ultimately the tactical switch backfired, with Roman Hubník’s 69th-minute opener prompting an abandonment of 4-6-0 in search of an equaliser that never came. 

A loss to a clearly superior Czech side under normal circumstances may have been greeted with no more than the normal negative reaction, but to have lost playing a formation with no recognised striker was totally inexcusable as far as many fans and sections of the media were concerned. Levein’s excuse, both at the time and since, has been that his plan actually worked, despite the defeat, and he even boasted that in the next few years, teams across Europe would be employing a similar formation with no strikers. 

In fairness, he was not wrong; Pep Guardiola occasionally switched his Bayern Munich team to a 4-6-0 mid-game, while Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain team experimented with a similar set-up on their way to eventual victory at Euro 2012. Perhaps Del Bosque was inspired by Levein having played Scotland twice in qualifying for the tournament?

However, to say that Guardiola’s and Del Bosque’s uses of the 4-6-0 prove Levein’s somewhat arrogant defence is to ignore the nature of how each of the three sides played in this formation. Positive use of 4-6-0 involves constant movement in the final third, with different players breaking the midfield and defensive lines of the opposition, both wide and through the middle, while a more advanced attacker draws defenders out of position with movement backwards. Guardiola and Del Bosque had the likes of Mario Götze, Arjen Robben, Cesc Fabregas and Andreas Iniesta between them to carry out these sort of tasks. 

Levein and Scotland did not have anything resembling that sort of quality, but with hard runners like Jamie Mackie and James Morrison, and a creative midfielder in Graham Dorrans, a similarly positive approach could have been taken against the Czechs. Instead, however, a negative use of the formation was implemented, using two banks of defence and midfield to prevent and suffocate the attacking creativity of the opposition. 

Levein’s position of tactical mastermind, in this case, was further damaged by the fact that the formation was never used in the remaining five qualifiers for Euro 2012. Four days after the Czech defeat, he switched back to a 4-3-3 formation to take on Spain. This led to a much more positive performance, as Scotland pushed Spain almost right to the wire, with only a Fernando Llorente header on 79 minutes sealing a close 3-2 victory.

This slightly improved performance could not paper over the cracks of what was already looking to be another unsuccessful campaign for Scotland, though. While they picked up points from a draw with the Czech Republic and two 1-0 wins against Lithuania and Lichtenstein, a 3-1 defeat by Spain in the group’s final game saw the Czechs take the group’s play-off spot. 

The most damning aspect to be reckoned with at the end of this campaign was the general lack of pressure that Levein subsequently faced from his employers. Despite Scotland’s only competitive wins under Levein coming against Lithuania or Lichtenstein, he retained support from the SFA and was trusted to enter another campaign. 

This, if nothing else, signified acceptance of the drop in standards that Scotland had suffered. While this was obvious from their mediocre performances on the pitch and failure to qualify, by keeping Levein in his position, the SFA all but confirmed that qualification was no longer expected of Scotland, or their manager. 

Underachievement was no longer used to describe Scotland failing to qualify for major tournaments because few simply had hope that it was a realistic possibility in the first place. By the end of the Euro 2012 campaign, the close call in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2008 had been long forgotten, and in its place, an acceptance of failure was beginning to take hold.

 

This is Part two of three pieces looking at Scotland’s qualification struggles this century. Part three will focus on Scotland’s attempts to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, Euro 2016, the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020.