INTERNATIONAL week arrives with the same appeal as glancing across at the alarm clock on a Monday morning and reluctantly accepting there is no choice but to get up. It has become something of a struggle. There can be few bounding eagerly out of their beds at the thought of watching the national team thrash around helplessly in its current state.
When did following Scotland become such a laborious, joyless chore? There will be some fervent fanatics who will insist that, even now, nothing in life gives them more pleasure than sitting in the soulless cavern that is Hampden Park witnessing the latest bunch of spirited triers in dark blue shirts thud a ball from side to side.
And many more who will insist that their triannual trips to the high-spots and fleshpots of Europe are nothing more than them expressing their unstinting devotion to the cause, and certainly not just an excuse to don peculiar garb and drink their own bodyweight in exotic lager for three days. Not that anyone is judging, of course.
But for the football purists among the patriots - those who care deeply about the state of the national team and its place in the wider scheme of things - the sense of disenchantment and ennui must be almost overbearing as they contemplate matches against Canada and Slovenia over the next seven days with all the enthusiasm of an evening spent grouting the shower.
Four months have now passed since the national team’s previous appearances in front of its increasingly disillusioned public, successive 3-0 defeats to Slovakia and England all but rendering a World Cup qualifying campaign over before it had truly properly begun. UEFA’s insistence that opting out at this stage is not an option will see Scotland line up for a further six fixtures in which the word “competitive” can only be used in the loosest of senses. Barring an unlikely metamorphosis into a team of world beaters, there is almost no prospect of Scotland breathing fresh life into this already flat campaign.
It has been quite some time now since the Tartan Army could travel out to a match imbued with optimism and bolstered by a feelgood factor that this was a team worth supporting. There was fleeting hope in the previous campaign before it was so crudely extinguished in the run-in, two opening draws did for them in the last set of World Cup qualifiers, while there was little glory to be extracted from the failure to reach Euro 2012.
You have to go back to September 2009 and the campaign to reach the following summer’s World Cup finals in South Africa to find the last time Scotland reached the end of a qualifying campaign with something still to play for. Even then they couldn’t find the home win over the Netherlands that would have earned them a play-off place. A decade of unrelenting underachievement has now passed since the famous home-and-away victories over France that weren’t enough to take the team to Euro 2008. The last manager to take Scotland to a play-offs was, in fact, the much-maligned Berti Vogts back in 2003.
When you have not qualified for a major tournament since 1998, then sometimes promise and potential are enough to sustain a nation. Heading into the first international fixtures of 2017, however, and it is difficult to detect any burgeoning sign of optimism, no hopeful shoots of recovery as had been the case in the first half of the previous campaign.
Perhaps adding to that sense of apathy among the Scotland support is the fact the same manager is still calling the shots. The loss to England in November felt like a natural time to part ways with Gordon Strachan and thank him for his efforts. Instead, the SFA board elected unanimously to allow him to continue in the post. Rather than a fresh start, it has instead created another potentially awkward situation should Scotland not defeat the Slovenians next Sunday. Will Strachan be expected to leave in those circumstances? And if so would it not have been better giving a new management team four months to bed in to the job rather than thrust blinking in front of the headlights that is a reunion with England in June?
In the meantime, then, there is little option but to muddle on. There are at least a few new names and returning faces to offer a fresh perspective on Wednesday night’s friendly at Easter Road against the Canadians, and then Sunday’s qualifier at Hampden. The emergence of Stuart Armstrong at Celtic offers hope that he can do similar for Scotland, while his team-mate Kieran Tierney continues to make a case to be considered the finest player of his generation. Calls for Ryan Fraser, Matt Phillips, and Tom Cairney to be given a chance have been listened to, while the goalscoring enigma that is Jordan Rhodes is also back.
A brace of wins would go some way to helping lift the mood of a nation during these testing times. Goodness knows they could do with it.
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