Well, we are there. Scotland will be appearing at their second consecutive European Championship Finals and this time the Scotland way was the least stressful although occasionally dramatic.
Never mind picking up a point here and there, Scotland came out of the traps flying, five wins out of five to all but qualify by September.
It would have been great had Scotland got the point they required in Seville to celebrate in front of their own fans, but it wasn’t to be. I am sure Steve Clarke and the Tartan Army would have taken this at the start of the group.
Instead, Spain completed the job on Scotland’s behalf as they beat Norway 1-0 in Oslo to ensure Clarke’s side qualified for next summer’s tournament with two games to spare.
No play-offs this time, no final game of the group heartache, just plain and simple winning early and setting down a marker. I hope it catches on in future qualification groups.
The business-like approach and mentality can be put down to a determination from the players who wanted to get back to the Euros after feeling they underwhelmed in 2021 and the frustration of play-off semi-final defeat to Ukraine for the last World Cup. Also, it is down to growing experience and continually development of a squad led by Clarke.
I was lucky enough to be one of only six Scottish journalists to be in Belgrade when Scotland won on penalties to reach Euro 2020. It was the joy and relief of getting back to tournament football that was evident. After failing to qualify since 1998, Scotland long stopped believing they could qualify and instead just hoped they would qualify.
Go back to March and that opening double header. Cyprus at home first, the lowest seeds in the group and a great chance to get off to a good start. A familiar face in Temuri Ketsbaia, the former Newcastle, Wolves and Dundee midfielder, was managing Cyprus. Ketsbaia was in charge of his native Georgia when they halted Scotland from qualifying for Euro 2016. Scotland did take a deserved lead before half-time, but the game was never put to bed until the closing stages when substitute Scott McTominay scored a late double.
His reward was to start against top seeds Spain. Scotland were given a boost before the game when Georgia and Norway played out a draw in Batumi. If Scotland could win, then they were off to a flier – and win they did.
Right from kick-off, Scotland got in and about Spain. McTominay’s early goal helped. They had to ride their luck and defend well, but going in at half-time there was a feeling that they should have been further ahead with Ryan Christie and Lyndon Dykes missing chances but in the end we shouldn’t have worried. McTominay again, after good play from Kieran Tierney on the left, gave Scotland the two-goal lead.
After the game, Rodri wasn’t happy with the cut of the Hampden Park pitch, the way Scotland approached the game and the time-wasting – too bad. Scotland got their first win over Spain since 1984 and already this was looking like a special campaign.
In June, the game against Norway was already looking crucial, could Scotland win the opening three games of a group for the first time since 2006? You bet they could, but it wasn’t straightforward.
Erling Haaland showed in flashes how dangerous he is, but it was only from the penalty spot that he beat Angus Gunn. Scotland weren’t at their best, they didn’t threaten the Norway goal enough until late in the game when Lyndon Dykes didn’t give up in stretching for a ball after confusion in the Norway defence. Incredibly, Kenny McLean scored just over a minute later to give Scotland the win. I must admit to jumping up in the press box when that goal went in in the 35-degree heat in Oslo. We all knew the importance of that goal on the pitch, in the dugout and in the away end. It wasn’t a great performance, but it was a win. The never-say-die attitude and the character got the points.
Following that win up was more difficult than it might have been due to the Glasgow weather. When Callum McGregor put Scotland ahead after six minutes against Georgia at Hampden Park, the pitch was already rain sodden after a heavy downpour in Glasgow. The referee brought the game to a halt that would last 90 minutes whilst the ground staff cleared the pitch of surface water. The game eventually restarted and McTominay again got the winning goal to make it 12 points from four games. What a start and already qualification was close. Clarke was taking nothing for granted despite letting slip that Scotland had made a good start.
By September, Scotland knew a win away to Cyprus would leave them on the cusp of qualification. The way Scotland came out of the traps, you could tell they meant business. What a first-half performance. McTominay again scoring, showing how key he is to the national team despite not playing much for Manchester United at the time. John McGinn continued to move up the goalscoring charts, but it was his former Hibernian team-mate Ryan Porteous that Clarke left special mention for, not because he scored his first Scotland goal but because of his fantastic block at the end of the game and to preserve a clean sheet for the team.
The 150th anniversary Heritage match at Hampden Park against England showed Scotland they still have a gap to bridge between the top nations as the Auld Enemy dominated and deservedly won 3-1 at the home of Scottish football. It was a friendly if there is such a thing in the world’s oldest international rivalry.
By the time Scotland were in Seville they knew they had two chances to qualify that night. Firstly, they either win or draw against Spain, or secondly, Norway drop points to Cyprus the same evening.
Despite a couple of early scares, Scotland managed to take the sting out of the game and were in at half-time with everything level. After the restart, the Tartan Army saw a goal and got a moment in which it seemed it was destined to be their night…until VAR intervened. McTominay once again pulled out a moment of magic to score directly from a free-kick from a tight angle. Cue delirium in Estadio La Cartuja in the away end, but Dutch referee Serdar Gozubuyuk was called to the monitor and disallowed the goal due to Jack Hendry being in an offside position and in the officials’ opinion active, although it seemed the original decision was a foul by Hendry on the Spanish goalkeeper.
Spain then upped their game and scored twice in the last 15 minutes. With Norway thumping Cyprus in Larnaca, Scotland would have to wait to qualify.
As the Scotland fans headed to Lille for a friendly with France, they packed the bars – not to take in the latest from the Rugby World Cup being held in the country but to watch Spain defeat Norway in Oslo.
They were given déjà vu when Alvaro Morata’s first-half strike was disallowed by VAR for offside and they were given another lengthy VAR wait in the second half, only for the decision to go in their favour as Gavi scored what turned out to be the winner in the 49th minute.
Spain’s win sparked great celebrations amongst the travelling Scotland support in France – their joy in contrast to the despair of those around them in Lille after France’s defeat in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals to defending champions South Africa saw the hosts crash out.
Attention will turn to France’s footballers next summer as they go to Germany as one of the tournament favourites where Scotland could face them.
Clarke’s side have qualified with two games to spare and they will want to win the group, but with the head-to-head level Spain’s superior goal difference gives them that advantage.
Something Scotland need to do though is win in Tbilisi. Even though none of the current Scotland team played in the defeats in 2007 and 2015 that scuppered European qualification, it is a psychological thing. Just go and show Scotland can beat Georgia on their own patch. That would just put the cherry on top of the cake to qualify out of a group for the first time since World Cup qualifying for France 1998.
Their final qualifier sees them take on Norway at Hampden Park in a game that Steve Clarke can try and build further momentum towards Germany.