With all the exhilarating work being done by Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester and by Barcelona’s breath-taking front three, it is sometimes easy to forget that football extends beyond the confines of the club arena and that in just a few short months Euro 2016 will commence. This lethargy towards the international scene is not something afflicting fans north of the border where fans from Inverness to Dundee are looking at the squad and salivating, wondering just how far the Tartan Army can march.
While Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Wales will be going to France with the intentions of enjoying the sunshine, hopefully picking up a couple of decent results and trying to enjoy what will surely be a party atmosphere, Scotland will be more like England, a nation with the aim to win the entire tournament. However, unlike the “Auld Enemy”, Scotland actually have the talent to back up their intentions. Below are just a few key factors in what makes Scotland a team to be taken seriously come June.
- Wizard on the wing
This summer will showcase some of the finest wingers in world football; Wales have Gareth Bale, Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo, Germany have Marco Reus and Belgium have Eden Hazard, but can any of them look in the mirror and honestly claim to be better than Scotland’s James Forrest? Conventional thinking after decades of football analysis tells us that to succeed in the wider areas you need to be endowed with a few key traits; pace, composure, intelligence and a flair for the dramatic. Forrest laughs in the face of conventional thinking. Young Forrest has managed to carve a lengthy career at Celtic and continues to be called up to numerous Scotland squads utilising his unique version of wing wizardry. In any given 90 minute display you can count on at least a dozen crosses failing to beat the first man, a real reluctance to sprint, a left foot about as decisive as Diana Ross’ circa 1994 and most impressively the ability to bamboozle himself more than the opposing fullback. With a player like Forrest on the wing, who can honestly claim to be able to halt this rampant Scottish force?
- Modern day Braveheart
Football is a sport that rewards patriotism. Think of Gazza’s tears in Italia 90 or Terry Butcher heading away countless balls despite his head leaking more blood than Aston Villa’s defence leaks goals. The point is that people can really get behind a team of players that care about the nation just as much as the fans do, it rapidly makes a connection between pitch and stand that is incredibly difficult to tear asunder, and no one is more patriotic than Scotland’s Matt Ritchie. The Bournemouth winger is the epitome of 21st Century patriotism. Matt Ritchie’s love for Scotland goes back to his birth where it is often said that when he was a boy, living on England’s south coast, he would go to bed in a John Wark replica Scotland top (complete with pen-drawn moustache). Apparently he dreamed of a life north of the border so often and so intensely he simply refused to enter the country unless he was picked to play for the Tartan Army. And that’s just what he did, crossing the border for the very first time to make his debut in March 2015 against Northern Ireland. With Ritchie as the emotional fulcrum of the side there is really no limit to Scotland’s ambitions.
- Quick feet, quicker tongues
The managers at the Euros will be some of the most taxed men at the tournament, all with a myriad of plates they need to keep spinning; Chris Coleman will be trying to set up a Wales side that can get the best out of Gareth Bale, while remaining defensively resolute, Old Roy will be trying to cram as many Manchester United players into the starting line up as he can, while Del Bosque, Conte, Lowe, Wilmot’s and Deschamps will all be trying to outsmart each other and land the ultimate prize. Scotland’s manager on the other hand will have an entirely different task on his hand. Like a miniature ginger Travis Pickles (Robert DeNiro’s mad anti-hero from Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver), Strachan will be gazing into a mirror, acting out as many scenarios as he can. The aim? A combination of sounding like the most sarcastic man on the planet and the interviewers the biggest fools since Dumb and Dumber. Here are some “favourite” Strachan put-downs:
Reporter: “So Gordon, any changes then?”
Strachan: “Naw, still 5ft 6″, ginger and a big nose.”
Reporter: “This might sound like a daft question, but you’ll be happy to get your first win under your belt, won’t you?”
Strachan: “You’re right. It is a daft question. I’m not even going to bother answering that one. It is a daft question; you’re spot on there.”
Reporter: “Bang, there goes your unbeaten run. Can you take it?”
Strachan: “No, I’m just going to crumble like a wreck. I’ll go home, become an alcoholic and maybe jump off a bridge. Umm, I think I can take it, yeah.”
As for the football? Well with the quality of players Scotland have it will inevitably take care of itself.
- Communication is key
How often do you see Mark Lawrenson sprawled across the Match of the Day couch bemoaning a lack of communication, in his typically camp-morose style, as the key reason as to why a team concedes an easy goal? Way too often. That is not an affliction that will affect Strachan’s Scotland side. Every man in the squad will speak the same language, from goalkeeper to centre forward, there will be no break in fluency. Ideal.
- Midfield crusher
Every side in international football needs a midfield hard-man, a man that can break up opposition play and kick-start a move of their own. Italy in 06 had Rino Gattuso, Germany have Sami Khedira, even Spain and their brand of pretty football began with Marcos Senna at his destructive best at the base of midfield. Scotland, this summer, have the heir to their above thrones; Scott Brown. Brown is the modern incarnation of past tough guys like Graeme Souness, yet comes with a better technical assurance. Critics will say that Brown is little more than a footballing pufferfish, a man who looks down his nose and sticks out his chest in an effort to increase his bulk, that he is not tough, that he is operating in a thinly veiled illusion, broken at the slightest hint of retaliation. Brown will prove this summer that he is the blend of brains and brawn capable of leading his side to the trophy.
- Powered by fans
This summer will be a festival of treats for fans’ eyes and ears; Sweden will bring their Nordic version of joy, Ireland will enhance their reputation as a nation of folk that can enliven any party, Albania, fresh from their failed attempt at kidnapping Liam Neeson’s daughter will surely look to football as the balm for that open wound. Nations such as Wales, Northern Ireland and Hungary will be desperate to soak up every moment after such a long period in the footballing wilderness. None though will provide their players with the extra spring in their step in the same manner that the Tartan Army will. Having not competed at an international tournament since 1998, the Scotland fans will be like a pre-race greyhound, a pent-up ball of nervous excitement. Whilst the bigger nations, who have a tendency to get on their players’ back at the slightest hint of a misplaced pass (I’m looking at you stereotypical London cab driver) may make the tournament an unbearable bubble of pressure, Scotland’s players will breeze through the competition carried on the tunes of “We’ll be coming down the road”.