Our Euro 2020 moment is here - Scotland has its ball back

On the evening of 23 June, 1998 a tousle-haired Scot in St Etienne reacted to the sound of referee Ali Bujsaim’s final whistle by angrily booting the ball high into the stand at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard stadium.

Scotland prepare to take on the Czechs.
Scotland prepare to take on the Czechs.

Christian Dailly remains the last Scottish male footballer to kick a ball in major tournament football. “Au Revoir Ecosse!” was the headline in a local newspaper after the 3-0 defeat to Morocco. We have tried and failed to get another shot of that ball many times since.

Well, today it returns. Today we exchange a somewhat tatty France 98 Tricolore ball for a Uniforia, the official name given to the Euro 2020 version. According to the PR blurb, “it has no borders, speaks all languages and is a symbol for unity”.

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On a day of so many significant moments, one wonders who might get the first touch? Who will re-connect the Scotland football team with its storied past and formally bridge the gap between that warm, wretched night in St Etienne and this afternoon’s return to the top table of international football?

Will it be Lyndon Dykes, the player from Australia’s Gold Coast whose parents hail from Dumfries and Galloway, or Che Adams, another late recruit to the cause who has more than justified his inclusion? It could even be Billy Gilmour, who was not born when Scotland last tasted major finals action.

Of course, there will be other, hopefully more meaningful parts to play. Who will score Scotland’s first goal and relieve Craig Burley from what’s grown to become the unhappy burden of being the last man to score at a major tournament for Scotland?

Christian Dailly (22), David Weir (16), Tom Boyd (2) and Paul Lambert (14) applaud the Scotland fans after the final whistle in 1998.

It’s not guaranteed to happen but again, let’s pray someone will put the ball in the net, ideally this afternoon against Czech Republic at Hampden Park. Better still if it proves a decisive counter. We should not simply be glad to be here.

No male Scottish footballer has struck the winning goal at a major finals since Ally McCoist did so in thrilling style 25 years ago this week against Switzerland at Euro 96. John Collins scored against Brazil, Burley against Norway and then… nothing. It's startling to consider as we reflect on France '98 that Archie Gemmill’s famous strike v Holland, 20 years earlier, was then a more recent memory than Burley’s goal, now 23 years ago, is now.

Now, where were we before being so rudely interrupted by these years in the wilderness?

It's a historic day for the Scotland squad

As I write this article I am connected to wi-fi. Wireless technology had barely been invented when three goals flew past Jim Leighton on a horrid night in St Etienne. I was there behind the goal where the opener was rattled into the net and have tried to avoid footage of the game ever since.

I could easily watch if I wanted to. I could log on to Youtube – again, not around when Scotland last featured in a major tournament – and easily find the action. It always felt too harrowing.

But we’ve had a long time for those wounds to heal. Fans who were not even fathers then might be grandfathers now. Managers have come and gone.

Dailly curses a missed opportunity against England in 1999.

There have been near misses and not-so-near misses. A Euro 2000 play-off defeat to England was a David Seaman save away from being potentially one of Scotland’s finest hours. Again, Dailly was at the heart of it – his header was superbly tipped over the bar by the England goalkeeper as Scotland came so close to cancelling out the Auld Enemy’s 2-0 win at Hampden.

A 6-0 defeat to Holland in a Euro 2004 play-off brought an abrupt end to four days of giddy excitement after James McFadden’s deflected goal brought a 1-0 victory in the first leg. At the other end of the spectrum, there have been campaigns such as the one for the 2010 World Cup under George Burley when we knew the game was up after the opening fixture, in that case a 1-0 defeat in Macedonia. Scotland even managed to be the first European nation to be eliminated from qualifying for the next World Cup in Brazil.

So today is a good day. Today is a historic day. Some have attempted to compare the feeling with Christmas. Fair enough. But then Christmas Day is an annual event and not something that comes round every couple of decades or so.

We are still watching documentaries about trips to Argentina in 1978 and enjoying clips of journeys in a double decker bus from Ayrshire to Spain in 1982. Even footage of the more recent invasion of France, when fans congregated beneath the Eiffel Tower, tends to contain a grainy quality that lends it a poignant flavour.

There will not be many dry eyes among those fortunate Scots in the house as Andy Robertson leads the team out this afternoon. Scotland’s whiskery fairy godmother Steve Clarke will scan the main stand in search of his family. Left out of the squad for Italia '90 after being included in the initial pool, this will surely prove a particularly cathartic experience for him, even if he might not admit it. “We are ready,” he promised yesterday.

“I’ve been around the block a few times myself, having been involved in some big matches. The players will be properly prepared – physically, mentally and tactically. That’s our job. It’s been a long wait. We’re all waited a long, long time for this moment, so let’s make the most of it. That’ll be the message.”

In the words of that rather hackneyed, glib footballing phrase, we go again – at long bloody last.

We are coming down the road and we dare to dream. We are out of major tournament lockdown and in the swing again. Can we have our ball back? Yes we can.