Jealousy, we have all experienced it, the warm, panging sensation that leaves you stranded with the empty, hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach.
Jealousy can stem from anywhere, be it a friend buying a new car, phone, or more relatable for Scottish football fans, a glamourous, exotic holiday. For eighteen years the Tartan army have peered over Hadrian’s wall and watched with an envious eye as, biannually, fans of England pack up their replica tops and head to far off climes in search of glory. This tournament will be so much more infuriating, with our other neighbours Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all booking their places. For a Scottish football fan it feels like exam results day, we have opened our big brown envelope yet received nothing but bad news, the feeling of despair intensified as your pals get in touch informing you of their straight A’s.
The old adage “I support two teams; Scotland and anyone but England” emanates from such a sustained period of absence that the only true partisan level of joy you can withdraw from an international tournament bursts from seeing your rivals capitulate. And to be fair England have more than held their side of the bargain; time and time again collapsing, failing to utilise the undoubted talents at their disposal. However, joy of this nature is seldom more than fleeting and pales into insignificance compared to your very own, self-generated success.
For the upcoming European Championships all that seemed to be cast to the confines of history as Gordon Strachan constructed a side that made up for its lack of star-power with a combination of; an incredible work ethic, cohesive team structure and an ability to bend and adapt to a number of different systems. Strong performances away to Germany and Poland and routine wins at home to Gibraltar and Georgia allowed the six million or so Scots to dream of a summer holiday in France. This new found hope was magnified when four out of a possible six points were accrued from the crucial double header against direct rivals for qualification, the Republic of Ireland. Sadly, this was to be the campaign’s high-water mark as Strachan’s squad, in an all too familiar fashion, coughed and spluttered their way to the group’s end; losing to Germany and more importantly Georgia, whilst drawing to Poland. The sole positive coming in the 6-0 away victory of whipping boys Gibraltar.
For us Scotland fans the period of self-reflection has already begun. For the first time in over a decade there is the fresh blossoms of hope on the horizon. Despite the late disintegration, the feeling that Strachan is building something worthwhile is palpable, the hopes for finally joining our friends on a footballing jaunt are once again realistic.
The defence remains an area of contention as the Tartan army still rely on players of the calibre of Grant Hanley and Alan Hutton, yet youthful talent is beginning to emerge and could make their mark on the squad, interesting talents such as Celtic’s Kieran Tierney and Sporting Lisbon’s Ryan Gauld.
The scoring of goals has always proved challenging but with potential match-winners like Bournemouth’s Matt Ritchie and Watford’s Ikechi Anya, who have already demonstrated their goal-grabbing tendencies. The backs-to-the-wall, laborious style of previous manager Bertie Voughts have never felt more archaic.
The draw for the 2018 World Cup has been far more comfortable than some of the wars of attrition faced in the recent past; drawn alongside Malta, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania and most saliva-inducing, England. While the group is far from a guaranteed procession there is clearly reasons for optimism.
Slovakia are a side that while decent are far from intimidating. Napoli’s Marek Hamsik is a world-class talent operating in his nation’s engine room, however once you branch out further into the squad their deficiencies appear. Defensive stalwart Martin Skrtel and aged marksman Robert Vittek are both in terminal decline, while Vladimir Weiss, the player for whom the burden of creativity may rest is extremely erratic. The rest of the squad is largely devoid of exceptional talent. A good side who can hurt even the best sides on their day, as the Slovaks demonstrated by defeating Spain recently, but one that should not inspire too much dread.
Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta are all sides that are beatable both home and away if treated with the correct level of respect. It is this failure to recognise the talents of nations of this stature that has halted Scotland’s progress time and time again. That leaves only the “Auld Enemy” and as loathed as I am to admit it, this group once again appears rather straight forward for the Three Lions. Far from shying away from the challenge of our biggest rivals and slipping into a submissive mind-set, Strachan cultivated an aura of excitement saying:
“The sun came out just as England were pulled out and the place erupted… The draw is good for every supporter “
In the last number of years Roy Hodgson’s men have garnered a reputation as something of a school yard bully; more than happy to pummel the geeks and dweebs of their qualifiers but have consistently fled from the challenges of sides that match their standard come the time for competition finals. If England storm to automatic qualification as they will be expected to do, that leaves the door to second slot, and the play-off opportunity that comes with it, exceedingly viable. In a group as fractious and as evenly contested, where points will be dropped with the regularity of a drunkard fumbling their keys, the chance to finally look out our passports will never be better.
The future appears bright but when the likes of Vardy, Davies and Bale begin to strut their stuff and invite their people to join in on their footballing party, it will be extremely hard to supress those jealous feelings. That’s the beautiful thing about football however, tomorrow always offers a shot at redemption.