When the final whistle blew on Scotland‘s 1998 World Cup campaign, nobody imagined it would be the start of a two-decade absence from major competition. Scotland have come close in various playoffs since, only for qualification hopes to end in failure. Take the playoff hammering at the hands of Netherlands in 2003, the defeats to Georgia and Italy in 2008, or the infamous 4-6-0 formation against the Czech Republic in 2012. Whole generations of Scottish players would go without playing in a European Championships or World Cup.
Then came Nov. 12, 2020, and a damp evening in Serbia, where David Marshall‘s penalty save in a 5-4 playoff penalty shootout win ended their run of heartbreak to seal at a place at Euro 2020 — their campaign kicks off on Monday against Czech Republic (Stream live at 9 a.m. ET on ESPN.)
Nobody could have predicted that barren spell, which lasted 196 matches. Three members of the 2021 team — defender Nathan Patterson, midfielders David Turnbull and Billy Gilmour — weren’t born when the 1998 World Cup took place, their understanding of the historic near-misses informed through stories passed down or highlight reels.
The elder statesman in Scotland’s Euro squad, 38-year-old goalkeeper Craig Gordon, remembers running to his friend’s home after school on June 10 that year to watch Colin Hendry lead Scotland against Brazil in their World Cup opener in the Stade de France. They lost 2-1; a draw vs. Norway and defeat to Morocco sent Scotland home early, but never mind, he and the country thought, there was always Euro 2000 to put things right…
“They were good times, and maybe we were a little bit spoiled by going to so many tournaments,” Gordon told ESPN. “At the time we probably took it for granted that Scotland will continue qualifying.”
After years in the wilderness, this bunch of players have reached the top again, led by Liverpool left-back Andrew Robertson. Such is Scotland’s abundance of left-sided players, with Arsenal‘s Kieran Tierney also in the squad, they’ve shifted formation to accommodate both in the same team. Aston Villa midfielder John McGinn runs things in midfield, while Chelsea‘s outstanding youngster Gilmour could have a huge campaign.
Manchester United‘s Scott McTominay could either be a makeshift centre-back alongside Grant Hanley or anchor the midfield. Then you have Southampton‘s Che Adams up front, the ever-dependable Marshall or Gordon in goal, and a spine forged in the Premier League. This Scotland group has depth, and for once, they’re all fit. Masterminding their progress is the quietly spoken Steve Clarke, the former West Brom manager.
“I can think of better Scotland teams — you can go back to the side I was part of that didn’t make it past England in the [Euro 2000] playoffs,” Don Hutchison, who won 26 caps for Scotland from 1999 to 2003, told ESPN. “But I think their team spirit is stronger. I think the players are really united with the staff. Back in the day, I think some players looked after themselves: you do your best for your country, but you look after yourself. But I look at them now and think that’s a dressing room I’d love to be part of.”
Though the fans’ focus will be on the second game in Group D when they face “Auld Enemy” England at Wembley on June 18, Scotland’s return to the international stage on Monday against the Czechs, in front of 12,000 fans, will see Hampden Park rocking.
Between 1998 and 2021, Scottish football lurched through an ugly cycle of eager expectation and brutal heartbreak; the two emotions would clash as tournaments came and went. So you could forgive even the most optimistic of Scotland fan for not expecting the country to seal a place at Euro 2020.
But, after they finished third behind Belgium and Russia in Euro 2020 qualifying Group I, Scotland were offered another chance via the playoffs due to their success at the top of Nations League pool C. After beating Israel 5-3 on penalties in the qualifying semifinals, they drew Serbia in the final. “We’ve had to grind out some games, it wasn’t always pretty, but we managed to get that bit of luck which had been missing in a few past campaigns,” Gordon said.
In an empty Red Star Stadium, they led Serbia 1-0 through Ryan Christie‘s goal, only for Luka Jovic to score an equaliser in the 93rd minute. It went to penalties, and backup goalkeeper Gordon remembers standing on the touchline on a damp night, keeping everything crossed while also feeling powerless.
With the shootout tied after four rounds, Kenny McLean stroked his spot-kick home to give Scotland a 5-4 lead. Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic strode up for Serbia’s last penalty; he hit it low, to the right but Marshall pounced off his line and batted it away. After an uneasy five-second pause while he waited for confirmation from the referee he had not encroached off his line, pandemonium ensued.
“I can’t remember too much about that moment,” Gordon said. “I know I’m definitely one of the slowest players in the squad, but I was one of the first to jump on the pile of celebrating bodies. That was one of the best feelings you could possibly get as a player, to be part of that squad. It was the best feeling, even though I hadn’t set foot on the pitch.”
The twin incentives of qualifying and hosting matches had kept Gordon focused in the hope of one day making a major tournament. The fear of missing out kept him motivated, even helping him get through 2012 to 2014, when injuries led him to contemplate retirement. He wanted his children to see their dad play for Scotland again.
Gordon and I spoke in late May, just a few days before Scotland were due to begin their pre-tournament training camp in Spain. Last summer, with the Euros postponed due to the coronavirus, Gordon remembers taking a moment away from his family — now up to five, with the arrival of his third child Ace in March — and wrote a list of personal targets on his iPhone’s notes app.
He knew these Euros would likely be his last shot at a major tournament.
Having started his career at Hearts and then moved to Sunderland in 2007, Gordon’s career was halted by knee problems in 2012. He spent two years doing TV work, even looking into coaching, but still he hoped of being able to play again.
“I didn’t know what level that would be,” Gordon said. “And then once I managed to get a level of fitness that allowed me to do that, I wanted to be the best that I possibly could… nothing was ever enough. I used whatever motivational factors possible to spur me on, to try and prove everybody wrong who thought my career was finished.”
After six strong years at Celtic, having joined in 2014, Gordon had two options: stay at Celtic in a supporting role, or move elsewhere and prove his form, keeping his dreams of a Scotland recall alive. He went for the latter option and signed for his boyhood club Hearts, who were in the Scotland’s second division. “I wanted to get out and give myself the best opportunity to be part of this,” Gordon added. “It was purely to give myself the chance to get back into the national team.”
After an impressive start to the 2020-21 campaign, Gordon earned a recall to the Scotland squad in November 2020. He was on the bench for that match against Serbia, but then started against Slovakia on Nov. 15 for his 55th cap, three years after his last one. In the process, he set a new record for the longest-spanning international career for a Scottish player at 16 years, 5 months and 17 days.
Hearts’ season finished on April 30 with promotion, but Gordon asked to train with the team’s U-18s and reserves, who still had games left. He got the goalkeeper coach to continue working with him, unwilling to leave anything to chance. On the morning of May 19, he went through his usual routines and noticed a text flash up on his phone.
It was Clarke, telling him he’d made the 26-man squad.
Scotland will throw everything at these Euros. The younger players in the team won’t have any fear, as they haven’t been weathered by the years of failure, while they’ll also be buoyed by the buzz around the country as the tournament starts. They know that if they can get through the group, then anything can happen.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but we’re looking to be the first Scottish team to get out of the group,” Gordon said. “That would be a bit of history as well for us, and from there, you just never know. You know this was beyond anything I could have hoped for back then [in 2012 to 2014]. These are the extra years I possibly couldn’t have had.”
The lockdown restrictions have eased in Glasgow, meaning there will be 12,000 fans in Hampden Park on Monday to welcome the end of Scotland’s 23-year wait.
“My dad passed away while I still played for Scotland,” Hutchison said. “And even though he passed away, I always put a ticket in the ticket office for him. And I sort of said to the sort of attendant, like ‘this is for my dad, but he’s passed away, so if you if you feel as though someone really needs this ticket, give the ticket away, obviously, but don’t tell me, I don’t want to know’. And I always had that [in my mind] when I was stood on the pitch, listening to the national anthems, for those last six or seven caps. It was emotional. Hearing the fans sing ‘Flower of Scotland’… I think it’s one of the best anthems out there and they sing it with pride.”
With this young side, Scotland will be hoping this year’s European Championships become part of the new routine of biennial football parties, rather than a wonderful one-off.