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, combined to see Scotland miss out on five World Cups and six European Championships.  

At the end of part 2, Scotland were now at their seemingly lowest point. While their FIFA ranking had not quite reached their record-low of 88, negative tactics and major player disruption had sucked the life and enthusiasm out of the squad, with manager Craig Levein thought by many to be lucky to still hold his position.

This third and final installment picks up with Scotland set to begin their qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup.   

2014 World Cup

As the referee blew the final whistle at the King Baudouin Stadium in north-west Brussels, Scotland had reached a new low. After four games in qualification group A for the 2014 World Cup, Craig Levein’s team sat rock bottom. Below Serbia and Macedonia, who they had drawn with at Hampden Park. Below Wales and Belgium who they had been defeated by 2-1 and 2-0, respectively. And below Croatia, who they were yet to play. 

While the expectation on Scotland to make it to a major tournament had long since been a prerequisite of success, to be all but out of contention after only four games crossed the threshold from reluctantly acceptable to utterly embarrassing.

Levein would be the one to pay the price for yet another disappointing run in his reign as manager. On 5 November 2012, three weeks after the defeat to Belgium, he was relieved of his duties by the Scottish Football Association (SFA). 

This prompted mixed feelings amongst the Tartan Army, because while there was undoubted joy and relief that Levein was finally gone, frustration and anger was still present because so many had been calling for this change to be made before qualifying for the 2014 World Cup began. Already eight points off the top two places in group A, the SFA’s failure to pull the trigger on Levein had now threatened to condemn Scotland to another missed opportunity.

The man tasked with turning around that seeming inevitability was Gordon Strachan. The former Celtic manager had been out of work for two years, but his success at the Glasgow club made him a more popular choice than some previous appointments. And as all who had come before him in taking the Scotland job in the 21st century, Strachan entered confident that he would be one to return his nation to a major tournament.

Unfortunately, after Strachan’s first two competitive games in charge, it looked evermore likely that the 2014 World Cup would not be the tournament Scotland would return in. After a debut 1-0 friendly victory over Estonia in February 2013, Strachan and his squad assembled again in March for qualifiers against Wales and Serbia. 

As in their previous encounter with Wales, Scotland took the lead, this time through a Grant Hanley header. However, as also happened in their last game against the Scots, Wales fought back with two second-half goals to defeat Strachan’s men 2-1 once again. Meanwhile, in Serbia several days later Scotland improved defensively in the first-half, but when taking a more adventurous approach in the second-half their solidity slipped, allowing Filip Đjuričić to score the game’s only two goals.

With results elsewhere going against them, Scotland were officially out of contention for qualification. While this was an embarrassing blow, it did present a rare opportunity in that Scoland’s final four qualifying games could be played with relatively little pressure. This allowed Strachan to experiment more with his squad, and welcome in players who had not been considered under Levein. 

In the closing games against Croatia, Belgium and Macedonia, Ikechi Anya, Robert Snodgrass and Barry Bannan – a particular favourite of Strachan’s – were among a host of either new or returning players who fought for a starting spot in the rebuild that Strachan knew was required.

These changes resulted in Scotland’s most positive run of the whole group stage, as they defeated Croatia home and away courtesy of a couple of Snodgrass goals, and won in Macedonia with Anya opening the scoring with his first Scotland goal. While a 2-0 defeat to Belgium was sandwiched in-between these results, this improved run-in provided Scotland and Strachan with hope and some confirmation that they may have been beginning to move in the right direction.

But Scotland had been here before, and Strachan knew as much. He had said many times that there would be “no quick fix” to Scotland’s qualification issues. 

Euro 2016

As Euro 2016 kicked-off in France, fans of England, Wales and Northern Ireland followed their national teams to their various host cities, eagerly awaiting the kick-off of their nation’s opening fixtures of the tournament. 

Scotland’s Tartan Army, meanwhile, also travelled to the same place as their national team heroes for the start of Euro 2016: their living rooms. Dealt with the cruelest of fate, Scotland were forced to watch all the countries around them play in a major tournament, while they had once again failed to qualify. They were used to England qualifying, but when Northern Ireland and Wales made it through to the tournament finals, it hammered home the standing in which Scotland now stood amongst its United Kingdom peers, in footballing terms anyway. 

They had found themselves in this position after finishing fourth in their qualifying group. Two narrow, one-goal defeats by Germany, a 2-2 draw against Poland and a vital 1-0 victory against the Republic of Ireland were evidence of some Scottish progress during the campaign. Elsewhere, predictable wins against Gibraltar and a 1-0 victory over Georgia at Hampden were the type of dogged results Scotland had struggled to secure in the past. But, in the end a needless loss to Georgia, failure to win in the return leg against Ireland, and a 94th minute Robert Lewandoski equalizer for Poland were enough to ensure that Scotland finished three points short of the third place play-off spot. 

While these three games against Georgia, Poland and Ireland could all be used as the excuses for yet another failure to qualify, in truth the problem looked deeper than that. Other than Shaun Maloney’s winner against Ireland and Ikechi Anya’s sprinting burst through the German backline to equalize against the World Champions, the rest of Scotland’s campaign offered few moments of real quality or hope.

Meanwhile, Scotland could only look on enviously at Wales’ Euro 2016 squad, led to the semi-finals of the tournament by the generational talents of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey. Four years later, these players are now also mentoring a young and talented generation of Welsh talent in Rabbi Matondo, Ethan Ampadu and Daniel James.

The lack of quality coming through left Strachan with only those who had failed to qualify for major tournaments in previous years. But even that was no excuse given the success of Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland team. His Euro 2016 squad contained just four Premier League players, with the remainder being filled by Scottish Premiership, English Football League (EFL) Championship and League One players. 

Wales’ nurturing of world class talent and ability to field it amongst a group of players of a generally lower quality, and the man-management and tactical acumen of Michael O’Neill that allowed Northern Ireland to punch well above their weight put Strachan’s previous “no quick fix” comment into a new light. 

While on the face of it, it appeared to be a comment relating to finding the right tactical approach for his players and utilising the players at his disposal properly, it now looked more like a long-term, systematic change was required. One that could see Scotland producing talents similar to those in the Wales squad. 

Such change had already begun five years earlier, as the SFA set out their plan for youth development. One aspect of it saw Scottish Premiership clubs pushed to have 75% of their squad made up of Scottish players. But at the time of Euro 2016 qualification, the top three teams in the Scottish Premiership, Celtic, Aberdeen and Hearts, had rates of only 44%, 55% and 57% Scottish players respectively. 

This shows the long-term vision needed in such a project, but even today some of the fruits of the 2011 plan are beginning to be seen through the likes of Scott Banks at Dundee United, Josh McPake of Rangers and Chelsea’s Billy Gilmour, all of whom played in SFA performance schools which were also created as a part of the project.

Once these players have been developed and brought through, the focus must then turn to the squad unity that took Northern Ireland so far under Michael O’Neill. Unfortunately, that is something that has been severely lacking in Scottis international football for a number of years, with something of a ‘withdrawal culture’ working it’s way into the game.

While injuries and pressure from club managers cause international withdrawals for every national side, the prevalence of it with Scotland has made a minimum of two drop outs after call-up almost an expectation. 

Former managers, George Burley and Craig Levein have since raised question about the commitment of their players whilst in charge, whilst Craig Brown has continually lobbied for use of FIFA’s five-day rule, which means any player who withdraws from selection is unable to play for their club side until five days after the end of the international break. However, no such steps were taken during or since this campaign.

So right now, we can only hope that Scotland are on the right track with their youth production, and that the benefits of this could be seen in Scotland’s attempts to qualify for tournaments in the 2020s. Meanwhile, a more forward thinking set-up with Scotland’s current managerial team has seen those withdrawing more publicly called-out.

This, however, was of little consolation to Gordon Strachan in 2016. No Scotland manager had made it through two failed qualification attempts. He knew that his attempt at qualifying for the 2018 World Cup could be his final chance. 

2018 World Cup

This time”. These were the words that lit up big screens, banners and advertising boardings around Hampden Park ahead of Scotland’s first home qualifying game of the campaign. The slogan appeared to be a mixed message: positive in inspiring a collective effort towards the national team finally reaching a major tournament, with such hopes buoyed on even more by a 5-1 victory over Malta in the opening game; but also a stark reminder of the failure that had dominated Scottish international football for the whole of the 21st century, not to mention the sudden removal of the slogan that would be required if (when) Scotland’s qualification hopes ended.  

Sadly, this moment seemed like it would come sooner than expected, as an entirely unimaginative performance saw Scotland draw 1-1 with Lithuania in this first home game, which was then followed by humbling 3-0 defeats in Slovakia and England. Such was the disappointment at Scotland’s performances so far, the next home qualifier, against Slovenia, saw a crowd of only 20,435 turn up to watch Scotland. They were greeted with yet another difficult watch, as Scotland only claimed three points with minutes remaining through a Chris Martin header. 

Many of these fans returned for the home leg against England. Despite four games remaining after this match, Scotland’s poor start and the structure of the rest of the fixtures meant that anything but victory would realistically end Scotland’s automatic qualification hopes. Once again, “This Time” lit up Hampden’s advertising boards. 

After a 70 minutes in which Scotland only held on to a 0-0 draw as a result of last-ditch defending and the long-reaching legs of Craig Gordon in goal, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain opened the scoring for England. Scotland seemed condemned, but hope then arrived in the form of Leigh Grifiths’ left-foot.

 In the 87th minute, with only Scotland’s second shot on target of the match, the Celtic striker stroked a 30-yard free-kick quickly, sweetly and confidently into Joe Hart’s bottom left-hand corner to equalize. A draw still would not be quite enough for Scotland, but any points picked up against the ‘auld enemy’ would always be welcomed. 

While many Scotland fans may have settled for the draw, Griffiths would not. Three minutes later, a free-kick in almost exactly the same position was awarded, and Scotland’s number nine once again stood over it. This strike, seemingly quicker, sweeter and even more confident than the first, flew into Joe Hart’s bottom right-hand corner. With only added time remaining, Scotland were now 2-1 in front and level on points with England in group F. With two sublime free-kicks, Leigh Griffiths had finally made the SFA’s ‘This Time’ slogan believable. 

However, if it appears that this section has been written with slightly less nostalgic enthusiasm than James McFadden’s winner against France in 2007, that is because unlike that night in Paris, Scotland could not quite see the result through this time. As the game entered it’s 93rd minute, a poor Stuart Armstrong clearance allowed the ball to find it’s way to Raheem Sterling. He launched a hopeful but ultimately accurate cross into the box, where Harry Kane, unmarked and unbothered by the home fans’ whistles, finished with a side-footed volley. 

There was barely time for the kick-off to be taken, before the referee’s whistle blew to bring the game to a halt at 2-2. In most cliched of fashions, this draw truly felt like a defeat, coming in the worst possible way, against the worst possible opponents. 

Six points off of the automatic first palace and four away from a potential play-off spot, Scotland were still able to respond strongly to the roller-coaster of emotions that was the England draw. Three consecutive wins against Lithuania, Malta and Slovakia had gave Scotland renewed chance of finishing second in the group, but it would require victory in Slovenia. 

Buoyed on by their previous wins, Scotland were more positive in this game, as Leigh Griffiths once again took his place as Scotland’s saviour by opening the scoring. But after the break, Slovenia fought back to lead 2-1. Almost as tragically as in the England game, Robert Snodgrass then provided a glimmer of hope in the final minutes with an equalizer, but no miraculous free-kick, no late winner, would come Scotland’s way in Ljubljana.

So while Scotland ultimately finished third in group F, the closest they had come to making it to Russia had been in those three hopeful minutes between Griffiths’ second free-kick and Kane’s equaliser. The romantic return to major tournament football 20 years after their last appearance at France ‘98 was not to be. Not this time. 

Euro 2020

After six years and, certainly in terms of qualification, a lack of progress, Strachan’s time as Scotland manager was up. With no legal disputes or compensation battles to contend with, the SFA were able to focus solely on the appointment of their new manager, but few expected just how long the process would take. 

If the previous campaigns had shown up Scotland’s recent history, or lack thereof, of producing talented youngsters, then this campaign made clear that there were similar issues in their production of coaches. While Scotland and the SFA were once lauded as running one of world football’s top coaching centres – hosting the likes of Jose Mourinho, Nuno Espírito Santo and André Villas-Boas – that age has long since disappeared. 

This lack of international attraction also appears to be a domestic issue. At the time of writing, only one Scottish manager – David Moyes – is in charge of a Premier League side, while Scotland’s Old Firm are managed by an Englishman and a Northern Irishman. In the 2000s, top jobs within the British Isles were filled by several Scottish names, such as Walter Smith at Rangers and Everton, David Moyes (in a more successful spell of his career) also of Everton and Manchester United, Paul Lambert at Aston Villa and Norwich, Graeme Souness at Newcastle United and, of course, Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. 

It was one of these managers who had travelled South in the noughties boom of Scottish managers who was the shock selection to replace Strachan. After four months, and several public instances of failed approaches for other names, Alex McLeish was named Scotland manager for the second time. 

When first appointed, he was coming off the back of a successful title-winning spell with Rangers, but circumstances were much changed 11 years later. His spell with Birmingham City ended with a League Cup win, but it was a downward trajectory from there, with disappointing spells with Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Genk and Zamalek. If Scotland were looking for a boost amongst both their players and their fans, the general consensus was certainly that this was not the appointment to achieve that.

Nonetheless, McLeish was still able to lead Scotland to the top of their UEFA Nations League group. Victory in this new UEFA competition allowed Scotland the opportunity to qualify for Euro 2020 via a play-off if they were unable to qualify through the typical group format. 

The beginning of this qualifying campaign highlighted just how useful the back-door entrance via the Nations League could be. A journey to Kazakhstan saw Scotland return home beaten 3-0, with a failed experiment of playing Oli McBurnie as a lone striker resulting little to no goal threat from the Scots. For many the result was a summation of the poor football seen since McLeish was reappointed, and even a 2-0 victory over San Marino three days later could not save him, as his tenure was ended days later. 

This time around, the SFA were more attentive to the public opinion around who should be their new manager. They went all out for Northern Ireland’s Michael O’Neill, but he eventually declined the move, holding out for a bigger job – a move justified by his recent appointment as Stoke City manager. 

Next up on the preferred list of candidates was Steve Clarke. A prominent coach under Jose Mourinho and Kenny Dalglish, Clarke had initially transitioned well into the role as manager, finishing 8th with West Bromwich Albion. However, subsequent struggles the next season and later with Reading saw the Saltcoats native return closer to home, as he took Kilmarnock from bottom of the table to a 5th place finish in 2017/18. 3rd place followed the next season, and after waving goodbye to Killie fans on the final day of the season, Clarke was announced as Scotland manager.  

A debut win against Cyprus renewed hopes for the Scots in group I, but a run of four consecutive defeats ended these hopes before any chance to dream really took hold. This run saw Scotland concede twelve and score only one goal, culminating in a 4-0 defeat to Russia to end all hopes of qualification through the group format. Another 2-1 win against Cyprus and revenge over Kazakhstan proved too little too late.

Clarke was not helped during this run by a media storm of criticism against his players brought on by an overheard conversation between Sheffield United and Scotland players Oli McBurnie and John Fleck. In the candid moment, Fleck asked McBurnie if he was going to report for his call-up to the national team – with a squad announcement just days away – to which the striker replied “I hope not”, before the two insinuate that they would rather not join up with the squad for their upcoming qualifying games against Russia and Belgium. 

While shocking and met with a great deal of anger, this was only evidence of a practice that had been present in Scotland set-ups for a number of years, and saw a continuation of the ‘withdrawal culture’ still present in the national team. 

But Clarke has taken a firmer stance than his predecessors on this issue, defiantly stating after a host of withdrawals in November: “I’ve got 23 players in this squad who want to be here and all want to be part of what we want to do.”

That particular episode also saw Clarke publicly call out the actions of club managers asking their players to pull-out of international games in order to preserve fitness, with Ranger’s Steven Gerrard and Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp especially targeted.

But in truth, Clarke knows that the best way to change this culture is by changing the atmosphere within the current set-up. At the moment, his best hope of doing that is by making it to Euro 2020, and while their group qualification chances have long since been gone, their victory in the Nations League still provides a back-door entrance into the expanded competition. 

In November 2019 they were drawn against Israel, with victory in that one-off game leading to a second two-legged play-off against one of Norway or Serbia. Unfortunately, as with all things, the COVID-19 pandemic halted these play-offs. With no dates yet decided for the rearranged fixtures, and Euro 2020 officially moved to 2021, it looks as though Scotland’s wait for a major tournament will continue.