Five key moments leading to heartbreak for Scotland on the road to Russia

World Cup 2018

‘This Time’ was the Scottish FA’s slogan for the qualifying campaign on the road to Russia 2018. But here we are – the morning after the night before. Another hangover accompanies another Scotland disappointment. The over-riding feeling is not of misery or despair. We, as a nation, are not feeling sorry for ourselves after this latest setback. But somehow it’s even worse ‘This Time’.

All that’s left is an empty feeling of déjà vu, just as there was a feeling of inevitability about the manner in which we fell at the final hurdle. This campaign didn’t even seem to have the “glorious” element to the failure that other unsuccessful tries have had in the past.

As I write this through the bitter tears of another national team heartache, I will look at five key moments that led to this latest kick in the teeth for the Tartan Army. There’s a significant amount of masochism involved with being a Scotland fan. As such, I will also take you back to some other historic heartbreak since the last time Scotland qualified for a major tournament, nearly twenty years ago.

  1. Malta 1 v 5 Scotland

The opening match of this ultimately ill-fated campaign was supposed to be a straightforward confidence booster against the minnows of Malta – especially after an early Robert Snodgrass goal settled the nerves. Yet when the plucky Maltese equalised with less than a quarter of an hour gone, there was that familiar feeling of dread that’s never far away with Scotland.

It took until well into the second half for Scotland to eventually pull away, and it was only thanks to a bit of luck with a soft penalty and red card for Malta on the hour mark. Two goals in the final fifteen minutes gave Scotland a comfortable 5-1 victory that, in truth, flattered Gordon Strachan’s side. The warning signs were there, but Scotland had got away with one.

World Cup 1998

The hard-luck stories all began the last time Scotland graced the world stage. Having missed out on USA ‘94 the Scots were back at the World Cup Finals for the sixth time in seven tournaments. With just under 20 minutes remaining of the opening match of the 1998 World Cup in France, Scotland were holding the mighty Brazil to a 1-1 draw; a John Collins penalty having cancelled out an early opener from Cesar Sampaio.

Then disaster struck as Tom Boyd put through his own net after 74 minutes in the Stade de France. Scotland were defeated. A draw with Norway followed before the Scots bowed out with a whimper after a 3-0 defeat to Morocco. But it was that Tom Boyd OG that began a generation of heartbreak, hard-luck stories, and failure – glorious or otherwise.

  1. Scotland 1 v 1 Lithuania

An away match against Malta was followed by a home game against Lithuania. Six points would set Scotland on their way ahead of tricky ties away to Slovakia and England. But this, more than any other match on the road to Russia, would be the one that would cost Scotland dear. There were starts at Hampden for Russell Martin, Grant Hanley, Barry Bannan, Oliver Burke and Chris Martin. Leigh Griffiths, fresh from a 40-goal season for Celtic, could only make the bench.

The Scots huffed and puffed during a goalless first half before the visitors took the lead after an hour. Griffiths was thrown on for the final twenty minutes with Scotland chasing the game. An equaliser from fellow sub James McArthur in the 89th minute spared Strachan’s blushes, but the warning in Malta hadn’t been heeded, and Scotland headed to Slovakia needing a result.

Euro 2000 play-off v England

Next up on our miserable meander down memory lane, the Euro 2000 play-off against England. Trailing 2-0 after the first leg at Hampden, the Scots went to Wembley needing a miracle. Scotland played with a verve and confidence that gave no respect to English egos. Remember, this was an England side containing the likes of Paul Scholes, Paul Ince, David Beckham, Alan Shearer and Michael Owen.

Then Scotland manager Craig Brown summed up the never-say-die attitude of Scotland teams of the era – sides that were used to qualifying for major tournaments. He said “I’ve never lost two in a row and I wasn’t going to against England.” Brown was true to his word as Scotland defeated the Auld Enemy on their own patch. However, the 1-0 win wasn’t quite enough.

  1. Scotland 2 v 2 England

Matches away to Slovakia and England were never going to determine Scotland’s fate in this group. Taking anything at all from either of those games would have been a bonus. If falling 3-0 to the Slovaks in Trnava was an abject display, the same can’t be said of the Scots’ defeat by the same scoreline at Wembley. This time it was definitely England who were flattered. So there was no fear or trepidation ahead of the return at Hampden – especially after Scotland had beaten Slovenia at home in between times.

In a real war of attrition, England finally got their noses in front after 70 minutes, taking the lead through Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. But up stepped Leigh Griffiths. Two brilliant free-kicks in the final three minutes of the 90 turned everything on its head. The brief euphoria was a throwback to victories long since forgotten. But then came the all too familiar heartbreak. The Scots just couldn’t see the game out. Harry Kane’s equaliser, three minutes into injury time meant that England snatched a barely-deserved point. This was a draw that in many ways felt like a defeat for Scotland.

The Group of Death

Qualifying for Euro 2008 began against the Faroe Islands on 2nd September 2006. Less than two months earlier, Italy had won the World Cup Final in Berlin. The World Champions, along with beaten finalists France ended up in Group B of Euro 2008 qualifying, alongside Scotland. Ukraine, who reached the quarter final in Germany, made it a real group of death. Scotland would beat France home and away during an incredible campaign that also included a 3-1 win over Ukraine at Hampden. Heading into the last two matches, Scotland’s fate was in their own hands.

But then – Georgia, and it wouldn’t be the last time the former Soviet state threw a spanner in the works. A 2-0 defeat left yet another do-or-die scenario, this time against the World Champions Italy at Hampden. A win for Scotland would leave France unable to overtake them in the second automatic qualifying berth.

Barry Ferguson scored one of only three goals during his international career to equalise Luca Toni’s second minute opener. That left a thrilling final 25 minutes when a Scotland winner would see them through. As the seconds ticked down Giorgio Chiellini bundled into Alan Hutton in the corner and somehow the referee and his assistant saw fit to award a free kick to Italy. Andrea Pirlo put the ball right onto Christian Panucci’s head and the World Champions stole all three points at the death. It was the cruelest of blows.

  1. Scotland 2 v 0 Malta

Scotland put the England disappointment behind them to breathe new life into the campaign with a comfortable 3-0 win away to Lithuania. That meant that ahead of the Malta game at Hampden, there was just the faintest glimmer of hope that the Scots were in with a chance. A comfortable victory would put another three points on the board and give a much-needed boost to Scotland’s goal difference. But with renewed hope, again came the pressure of an expectant Hampden crowd. Strachan’s men managed a 2-0 win against the group’s whipping boys that was hailed as a ‘professional’ performance in some quarters. In reality, it was an opportunity missed to put pressure on the teams around them with a convincing win.

Euro 2004 play-off v Holland

Despite just a single defeat in the 2002 qualifying campaign in a group containing Croatia and Belgium, the Scots fell short again. That ushered in the Berti Vogts era. A stuttering start saw the Scots come from two goals down to draw with the Faroe Islands in an infamous match in Toftir. They recovered to finish second in the group behind Germany, setting up a play-off against the Netherlands. James McFadden’s strike gave Scotland a 1-0 win in the first leg at Hampden and the dream was alive. Or at least it was until Scotland’s worst defeat in 42 years – a 6-0 drubbing in the Amsterdam ArenA four days later.

  1. Slovenia 2 v 2 Scotland

And so it was to last night in Ljubljana. A last-gasp winner against Slovakia at Hampden meant that once again, our destiny was in our own hands. Leigh Griffiths, finally Scotland’s first-choice striker in Strachan’s team, sent us into dreamland once again with a clinical strike just over half an hour in. All we had to do was hold on for an hour and we’d be in the play-offs!

Why Scotland subsequently retreated back to the edge of their own 18-yard-box will remain a mystery. But retreat they did, inevitably inviting Slovenia on to them. A Slovenia team with nothing but pride to play for, remember. But invite a team on, especially with pride at stake in front of its own fans, and you run the risk of conceding. Scotland had started the second half timidly, almost afraid of the consequences of winning. And they got what they deserved when a double from Roman Bezjak gave the Slovenians the lead.

But Scotland weren’t done yet. Oh, no. Just as it began to dawn on the Tartan Army that qualification was as far away as ever, Scotland scored on 88 minutes, to prolong the agony in a way only Scotland can. A late, late winner would be enough. But, alas, it wasn’t to be and the hopes of a nation were shattered once again.

The aftermath

Gordon Strachan hardly helped matters with his post match comments. The Scotland manager has now overseen two failed qualification campaigns, and with his contract up in November, many fans feel it is time for change. Others point to the lack of a credible replacement, as well as positive recent results as reasons for Strachan to stay. However, his bizarre claims that Scotland are somehow at a “genetic disadvantage” to other nations, has damaged the notion that Strachan himself is a credible candidate to take the team forward.

This was arguably the best chance Scotland have had of qualification for many a long year. Despite only being seeded fourth, qualification was infinitely doable from a kinder group than the Scots have had for some time. Even after a less than stellar start with four points from four matches, there was hope.

Good performances, most notably against England at Hampden, and away to Lithuania only encouraged us to dream. Victory against Slovakia kept the dream alive, and it was down to the final game. A shootout for a play-off place that looked highly unlikely just a year ago. However, it was once again a bridge too far and we fell at the final hurdle. We don’t expect our team to be world-beaters, we’re a pretty realistic bunch. But as any Scotland fan will tell you; ultimately, it’s the hope that kills you.

Maybe Next Time.