There are parts of Scottish society that are untouched by the national football team’s return to a major tournament. It just does not feel that way. The all-consuming excitement – and expectation – resonates partly in the struggles of the Covid era but also depicts a country that has regained some pride.
When the team take the field against the Czech Republic on Monday afternoon, 23 years of heartache, embarrassment and so much in between will evaporate into the Hampden Park air.
Scotland’s relationship with football is a complex and frequently irrational one. At times, it fuels such anger and division there is cause to wonder it was not outlawed long ago. The flip side relates to the disproportionately lofty status afforded to teams or players who succeed. With regards to the international team, Euros qualification gives opportunity to come together. There is also inevitable introspection; where is Scotland as a country now versus 1998, when they timidly exited the World Cup? Throw in a rare competitive meeting with England and these look highly significant days ahead.
“For a whole generation, the national football team has not really been the focus of attention,” says Prof Ewen Cameron, an expert in Scottish history at the University of Edinburgh. “The rugby team has increased in profile, for example, whereas in the 70s and 80s the football team was the big thing. So that position changed, but this has brought the team back to the forefront of how people think about national identity.”
There is a widely used theory – albeit Cameron is sceptical of it – that the failed devolution vote of 1979 was due in part to poor performance at the World Cup a year earlier. The Scottish attitude towards that tournament looks an aberration; the team were treated like heroes even before they left for Argentina. Manager Ally MacLeod claimed they could win the trophy and a nation bought into the euphoria. Instead, they failed to get past the first stage.
“There generally is a more self-confident Scottishness now,” Cameron says. “A successful football team is helpful to that, but it probably wouldn’t compensate for other things. That self-confidence exists already. I also think there has been a maturing of attitudes towards England.”
No wonder John McGinness, co-owner of the popular Drake bar in Glasgow’s Charing Cross, is effusive about Steve Clarke’s work as manager. Coronavirus has hammered the hospitality industry with the Scotland team doing their bit for a recovery mission. “It couldn’t have come at a better time,” he says. “It is a huge help.
“It is such a positive for us, especially starting on a Monday at two o’clock as wouldn’t normally be a busy spell. The whole tournament is going to be brilliant in terms of getting people out. We aren’t at full capacity and can only open until half 10 but this bulks things up.
“A normal Euros or World Cup without Scotland involved is good but this will just make it fantastic. Even better if they can get through, things would go through the roof.”
As a purely social occasion Friday evening’s match at Wembley is akin to Scotland opening France 98 with a game against Brazil. This one arguably tips the scales because of the shortage of Scottish match attenders.
“It is a chance for Scotland to celebrate the ways that sport at all levels can bring us together, and the joys of taking part and being physically active,” says Maree Todd, Scotland’s minister for sport.
“The Scottish government has provided £750,000 of funding to the Scottish Football Association to support its Football for All campaign, which provides funding to hundreds of grassroots clubs across Scotland to get people back playing football this summer.”
The boost to – or necessity for – Scotland to stage games was emphasised by the government’s confidence throughout that Hampden could safely house spectators.
But what of football itself? Craig Brown, who guided Scotland to their last finals, always insisted qualification was the biggest boost the sport could have.
“The legacy of the Euros is something where we need to drive as much engagement in the game as we can,” says Ian Maxwell, the Scottish FA’s chief executive. “We have to have a legacy from the Euros, it’s not just talking about the games for a period of time it’s what can we do that’s meaningful and keeps us going beyond that.”
The financial boost to the SFA cannot be ignored either; 10 failed campaigns in succession and the routine manager switches attached came at high cost. More important, if unquantifiable, is the overdue providing of inspiration to a generation of children. Kylian Mbappé and Kevin De Bruyne are still visible idols for these youngsters, but it surely helps to watch Ryan Christie, Kieran Tierney and Billy Gilmour in an identical domain.
Scot Gemmill’s father, Archie, scored one of Scotland’s most famous finals goals after dancing through the Dutch defence in 1978. Gemmill Jr is now the manager of Scotland’s under-21 team and places huge value in this Euros appearance. He sees stimulation everywhere. “That hasn’t been there for so long,” he says.
“This can have an effect with the national youth teams in terms of their games programmes. We want our best young players to have as much opportunity as they can, but if you really benchmark the Scottish youth teams against other leading nations, it’s only fair to say we need to play more games. So the huge benefit that will hopefully come through increased revenue and motivation is in terms of that.
“I’ve got two young boys, living in England, who now have an incredible buzz around Scotland. To see that, the penny drops in terms of how big an impact this has. These boys know I played football, they know their grandad played football but this has such an effect in terms of aspiration and motivation. Apply that across the population and this qualification has huge influence.”
How Scotland engages with Clarke’s team – win or lose – will be a cause for upcoming intrigue.