What 23 years of hurt and wait means to me
I have never seen my national team in a major tournament. I have never seen 11 of my countrymen wear the badge in a group stage game. I have never even seen my team come close to being in a group fixture. But after 23 years, or in other words my entire life, Scotland are in the Euros and back amongst Europe’s elite. This is what 23 years looks and feels like for someone who chose Scotland and stuck at it.
The 1998 World Cup in France looked an absolute riot; the colour, the noise, the fanfare, the lot. It looked a belter of a summer, but I was six months old. John Collins’ goal against Brazil will never be a memory for me because much like Scotland fans as he stepped up to take the penalty, I was bricking it, all be it for very different reasons. My mother tells me it was amazing, but as I crawled around in nappies, the nation wept after a humbling 3-0 loss to Morocco sent us home to think again.
Euro 2000 and we failed to replicate 1996 and spent the summer at home. Two year old me still wasn’t quite sure what to make of football other than booting it across the garden if it came anywhere near me and wrecking my Dad’s plants. A similar story cropped up in 2002 as our neighbours England got shown the door by Ronaldinho and his Brazilian champions. Euro 2004 and six year old me is loving football and I’ve fallen head over heels for the game, but again, no sign of the Tartan Army on the terraces. My school mates are enjoying England running out against Portugal, and I’m wondering when it will be our turn hopelessly. Seeing the Greeks stun Portugal gave me hope though, that our small nation of five million could give that a go. I don’t remember losing 6-0 to Holland in the playoffs, I’d like to keep it that way.
Germany 2006, and having watched Liverpool come from 3-0 down in Istanbul the summer before, I refused to believe anything was impossible. Turns out for Scotland, it was beating Belarus and getting past Moldova that was, so off go England on their lonesome only for Ronaldo to turn into the greatest pantomime villain; some laugh that. Euro 2008 was dreadful. I was 10 by this stage and quite frankly not even having the English there made my interest hit the deck. Fair play to Spain though, that team was something to behold. Our home nations had to do something, because this was poor from the lot of us. Generations of children were missing out on a tournament we all should be at, and as I grew taller and wiser, I knew that there were only so many years left before I would have to accept I simply won’t get a dream tournament in my childhood where I can hear O’ Flower of Scotland before a football match.
2010, 12 years old. We all remember Shakira’s belter for the World Cup in South Africa, yet we were denied the chance to sing it loud and proud as we bottled qualifiers again. Hey, England lost after the goal that never was against Germany, so at least we got a good laugh again. Poland and Ukraine next up in 2012 and another Euros are coming around, and at 14 I’m staring exams in the face whilst also watching Craig Levein take on a 4-6-0 formation against the Czechs. We lost. We failed again. I’m creeping up to my drinking years thinking I’ll never get the chance to crack open a can and watch my team in a tournament.
Brazil would have loved us. We love a good boogie and would have absolutely thrived in that tournament. Or so we thought, until Gordon Strachan and his lads stumbled. We lost to Wales twice. They finished below us in the group. 16 years of age and I can safely say that hope was really fading fast here. Then the one that really really hurt. England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all qualified for Euro 2016 We beat the Republic! Shaun Maloney’s goal at Celtic Park was one of the best I’ve ever seen from a Scotland player. I’ve just turned 18 and I should have had the summer of my life but we were the only ones not in France. We should have been there. We had to be there. But hey, we can laugh at England again, but that was getting tiresome. Germany and Poland was a tricky ask in that group, but the play-off was there, and we failed again.
Russia, a pretty solid tournament. Why not us? Vodka goes well with Irn Bru, let us have our turn. Come on Gordon, get us to a tournament. Let me start my twenties in the best way. Step up Leigh Griffiths and all of a sudden my life has peaked. Those free kicks need hung in the Louvre. Works of art and sheer beauty, but then the big question. Why didn’t Stuart Armstrong just clear the bloody ball? Minutes from beating England that could well have taken us to Russia, but no. We failed again, and it wasn’t even that result that cost us. Poor results with Slovenia and Lithuania; same story, different teams. Hope was fading fast, because if this group of players couldn’t then who could?
Then, finally at 22 years old, the unthinkable happened. Scotland entered two playoffs with Israel and Serbia. The first gave us hope after another drab encounter with Israel with the mayor Kenny McClean sticking his kick home to see us through. And then that most magical of nights in Serbia came around. David Marshall stopped Aleksander Mitrović with the final kick of the shoot out to send Scotland into pandemonium. I was lost for words, I fell to my knees in front of the TV and just screamed. We had finally bloody done it, and now the summer of football we had been dreaming of for so long was finally coming.
Every single man who stepped on that park in Serbia is a hero. Ryan Christie’s tears were felt right across the nation, yet some of us looked more like Scott McTominay afterwards simply screaming with joy. Baccara’s Yes Sir I Can Boogie was played in the dressing room as a celebration, I played that song every day for weeks at least once. It has become our Free From Desire, the anthem Northern Ireland claimed in Euro 2016, and I absolutely lose it in the build up to the chorus. It is a damn shame Hampden won’t be full, how can we not at least have the stadium full for two games? Never mind the behind the scenes happenings, tomorrow we will see our team in a group stage game for the first time in 23 years, and yet on the eve of the playoffs you’d think we were already there. Flags out the windows, bagpipes and dancing well into the night. The party had already started, so you can only imagine how good tomorrow is going to feel.
I’ve never had a Scotland players sticker book. I’ve never had a tournament wall chart where I can study just how far Scotland can go. I’ve never seen an opening fixture with all 24 flags hanging from the ceiling with the saltire in the middle. I’ve never had the chance to bin off work to watch my country in the group stages. I’ve never had a shirt that comes from the year we went to a major tournament. I’ve never had chats with friends and family where we debate who starts the first game. I’ve never had that feeling of excitement for a tournament where my national side is going to be a part of the action. I am part of a generation that grew up with so much failure and disappointment instilled into us by this national side. Not anymore. I am so proud of this team no matter what happens, and I can safely say Scotland deserves every last second of this tournament no matter the outcome. Enjoy every last moment of it. If you’re the lucky one at Hampden and Wembley, sing it loud and sing it proud. It’s coming hame.