Following Scotland’s victory over Israel in the Nations League, subsequently winning the group and qualifying for Euro 2020 playoffs, there seems to be a nationwide sense of optimism and a shared basking in the glory of the win – even if that basking is being done amid drizzly November rain and dropping winter temperatures.
It’s been a long time since Scotland made such tangible “progress” in any competition. Making playoff rounds ahead of 2004 and 2000 tournaments seeming distant, scant reward for so many barren years.
I wrote previously about concerns surrounding the sheer number of injuries, call offs and issues facing the Scotland squad. Numerous players picking up knocks in training or considering it more important to concentrate on their fitness with club sides presented a feeling of apathy, discontent and a potential lack of pride amongst the squad.
The players who did remain with the group did however step up and secured 2 vital victories away to Albania and at home to Israel. Neither are world beaters by any stretch, but you can only beat what is in front of you in these mini league formats (as the likes of Germany, Spain, France and Croatia have found out). So regardless of the “C” rung of the competition, the calibre of the opposition or the fact that Scotland did what Scotland do in making things “exciting” by almost snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the group was won and playoff spot secured.
In these last 2 games, out went the fairly experimental back 3 (possibly owing to lack of numbers more than anything) and in came a more standard back 4 with Robertson back at his natural position, McKenna and Bates forming a young centre back pairing and Paterson operating at right back – a role he filled in the past for Hearts but not so much lately for Cardiff. Notwithstanding some concerns over the solidity of Paterson at right back (not playing there at club level means he wasn’t necessarily in the “groove” for much of these games and looked a bit exposed) the back 4 helped secure 2 very important victories on the bounce – when was the last time that happened?
In midfield, good attack minded players led the charge with dynamism in the middle of the park through Armstrong and McGregor, ability, assists, goals and pace out wide with Fraser and Forrest and an excellent linking display from Christie and Fletcher meant that Scotland could put Albania and Israel to the sword whilst being on the front foot – again it has been a while since that was last the case.
Now, against better opposition some flaws will be exposed. Israel’s 2 goals came from a lack of closing down in the middle of the pitch – a more defensive minded midfielder would likely be required in there against better opposition, or against a dedicated trequartista style “number 10” who would surely punish Scotland in behind the forward facing midfield. But, this wasn’t needed or required (just) in these games. Similarly, as above Paterson or perhaps Tierney, Jack or O’Donnell (if any of them ever recover from those horrendous “knocks”) might need a bit more work filling in at right back, which is a new problem position, but this can be worked upon and solidity built up through playing together with a set back 4. This brings me onto my next point, 2 important games have been won with the same back 4 and goalkeeper – these must now be the first choice players here. These shirts are for McGregor, Paterson, McKenna, Bates and Robertson to lose now. Solidity and partnerships need to be built upon and in my opinion this back 4 should be allowed to settle, build and flourish as a unit.
It is a typically Scottish trait to spend this time basking in the glory worrying about flaws, inconsistencies or indeed when the bubble might burst – but we’ve all been burnt too many times to count our chickens!!
One further low point with this Israel game was the very low attendance at Hampden – somewhere in the region of 21,000 which means that the old stadium was less than half full. Putting aside any arguments over different venues for Scotland, this is really a poor turnout for what was such an important game. I’ve written and moaned about the SFA’s handling of Scotland games previously, much of which led to my tough decision to swap 15 years of attending all home and many away games for better value trips to watch football abroad. Prices for the Israel game were pitched at £35 for seats along the touchline, with £30 to be paid behind the goals. This for a rainy November night, one payday before Christmas, against Israel and when the game itself was on TV. Even if you had to venture to the local pub to watch, you would get change from £30 for a warm seat, few beers or coffees and chance to see the game.
The pricing structure for Scotland games has long since been woeful. Arguments presented have centred around this being “the going rate” for a big match, for a night at the theatre or tickets to see a band. However, these fans travelling to Glasgow on a Thursday night are not “customers”, they are not assets or numbers who can be milked for as much “competitively priced” cash as possible. These are dedicated fans who wish to brave the elements, finish work early, find accommodation and watch their national team try to achieve something. I’m a firm believer that much of the disconnect between fans and the National team at the moment if deeply routed in this type of thing, fans are being priced out or treated like numbers or customers (notwithstanding the flashy advertising and patriotic rhetoric offered by the SFA). This match further demonstrated and compounded this fact – for such an important match, effectively a must win, “league” decider the stadium was only half full. The SFA need to again take a long hard look at themselves.
I’m not hopeful that prices will be dropped, or indeed more innovative ticketing regimes (PDF, smartphone, digital tickets) will be introduced before the playoff games or upcoming formal qualifying campaign, if anything I expect prices to increase for some of these games.
This is a point in time when we have been worried about a loss of pride, loss of dedication and feeling of apathy of disillusionment with the National side. The team with their 2 recent victories has done their part and reignited a sense of hope, offered some tangible success and given fans something to look forward to (even if it is only a single playoff game). There’s now a burning ember of pride which needs to be nursed and protected to ensure that the team can continue to succeed and that fans can once again buy in to the National Team.
I do feel that full stadiums, will be inspired and will in turn inspire a successful National team – with a country like Scotland these elements go hand in hand, the powers that be would do well to remember this and help to build on this recent success.