18 November 2007
It's 6.30am on a Sunday morning, and right now I'm just contemplating how awful it must feel to be a Scottish football fan this morning.
Billy Connolly once said that Scotland always qualify. When he said it, in 1985, he was right - they'd made the last three World Cup competitions and would go on to reach three of the next four. But in the last decade, with the recriminations over a dearth of Scottish talent continuing as non-Scots fill the Old Firm changing rooms, the achievements of the team and rewards for its supporters had been largely nil.
Then along comes this qualifying campaign, for Euro 2008. Scotland were drawn with the two finalists from the World Cup, plus a quarter finalist. Italy, France and Ukraine. Prayers were immediately offered, as Scotland didn't have any.
But two wins against France, the second a ludicrously brilliant and admirable achievement in Paris, helped set them up for Italy at home in their final qualifier. Win it and go through. The fervour around Scotland, through those eager television news and sports outlets, was almost touchable through the screen. Constantly, the manager Alex McLeish was conducting interviews, trying to damp down the enthusiasm and expectation without once airing any negativity or bald realism. He was excited too.
Meanwhile, England had cocked up against Russia and the Scots had their perfect day planned out. Beat Italy, drink the place dry and receive texts saying Russia had won in Israel and England were out. For all the brilliance of the Scottish football fan in supporting their team and creating a frenzied but peaceful atmosphere, nothing is ever quite so becoming as their chip on the collective shoulder over the Sassenachs.
Italy score early. Scotland equalise in the second half. A draw might be enough if France do not manage goodly deeds against the Ukrainians. Scotland miss sitters. Frustration. Hands on head. Then Italy earn a dodgy free kick in injury time and score from it. Final whistle. Familiar despair of last-gasp failure for Scotland.
They'd still drink the place dry, of course, but to drown their sorrows. But how must your average England-hating Scotch loyalist have felt when they then heard that Israel had done for Russia - again in injury time - and so England were a mere one point away from qualification? England have played craply in their qualifying; Scotland haven't. England lost to Croatia, Scotland beat France - twice. But it's England who are going through.
Scotland's footballing history used to be one of qualification followed by failure. The bearded wavers of St Andrew chanting "what a load of rubbish" at Ally McLeod did at least make it to Argentina in 1978 prior to the dreadful collapse against Peru and Iran. The fans who watched in horror at Italia 90 as Costa Rica won 1-0 did at least, er, have each other. Scotland fans have always somehow represented the acceptable, jovial side of international football supporting, even though their team is either indescribably awful in qualifying, or indescribably frustrating in qualifying, or indescribably brilliant in qualifying and then indesacribably awful in the tournament. Archie Gemmill's goal - the one which apparently could prompt instant male orgasm if you believe Trainspotting - remains the one contribution the Scotland team has ever made to the worldwide game.
I'm a rare beast - an Englishman who is quite admiring of the Scotland team and (whisper it) I wanted them to win. I wanted them to qualify. I like Alex McLeish. I like James McFadden. That lad Hutton at right back looks a right player and half. But ultimately, Scotland will always deserve to fail for as long as they remain obsessed beyond anything else with wishing for the failure of the team south of their border. For once, they had a team worth backing and all their energies should have been channelled into supporting that team.
England have had some luck and can now finish the job, and Scotland will have to become honorary Czechs or something next summer, as their only involvement in the tournament will be as chief hecklers of England. Again.