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Scots in the pink for a big-stage return

SCOTT BROWN marked a milestone of his own the last time Scotland qualified for a major football finals.

Scott Brown models new Scotland away kit. Picture: Nick Ponty
Scott Brown models new Scotland away kit. Picture: Nick Ponty

It was June 1998 and by the time the boy from Hill of Beath in Fife was celebrating becoming a teenager, on the 25th of the month, Craig Brown's side were already on their way home from France. A World Cup campaign that had offered excitement and then promise eventually fizzled out tamely on the back of a 3-0 defeat to Morocco. It was always thus.

Fast forward back today, however, and Brown still recalls that period with typical enthusiasm. He remembers his 12-year-old self being embarrassed by the Saltire flags his parents insisted on displaying in the windows of the family home, but it is the colour, the atmosphere and the sounds that beamed into his living room from Paris, as he joined the rest of the world in tuning in to watch Scotland face Brazil, that remain the most vivid of memories.

Those were heady times although the travelling Tartan Army of the time and the millions more who watched the matches unfold on television did not have the benefit of hindsight to allow them to appreciate that was the case.

Scotland had missed out on the 1994 tournament in the United States but that was considered a mere blip on the back of five World Cup finals appearances in succession. A nation that had taken qualification almost as a birthright would soon learn to appreciate they never really had had it so good. Optimism abounds once again, however. The draw for any qualifying campaign tends to bring on a bout of collective amnesia as previous failings are forgotten.

This time there may be some substance to the growing feeling that Scotland's' absence from the major tournaments - 18 years by the time Euro 2016 comes around - could be coming to an end. That would mean a return to France, giving Brown the chance to live for himself the experiences he so fondly recalls from 1998.

"Playing in a finals would be the biggest thing for me," the Celtic captain said as he helped launch Scotland's new Lord Rosebery-inspired away kit. "When you're young you dream of playing at the Euros or the World Cup. I remember France '98 quite clearly.

"There was a great atmosphere with all the Scotland fans over there, and even just watching it on telly, it was a huge event. It's been a long time and we have to put that right.

"Every time a tournament comes around you sit and watch it and take everything in. You can just imagine what the Scotland fans would be doing if they were there. We think we're good enough to get there and we just have to prove it now."

The degree of the difficulty for Scotland in qualifying Group D depends on the mindset of those assessing it. Those of a pint half-empty disposition look at the strengths of Germany, the Republic of Ireland, Poland and Georgia, and the unknown quantity that is newcomers Gibraltar, and reckon another two years can be immediately chalked on to Scotland's exile.

Those with the half-full pints look at the changes to the qualifying procedure that now reward the top three teams in a group, as well as the momentum building under Gordon Strachan, and think there's no reason why Scotland shouldn't be in with a shout of making it through. Brown, unsurprisingly, is in the latter camp.

"I think the draw could have been a lot harder," he said. "It's always difficult to get to a World Cup or the Euros as we've seen with Scotland over the past few years but hopefully this will be our time. We have to try to get off to a good start.

"It will be tough going to Germany for the first game but anything can happen. If we can go there and maybe get a point that would be huge for us. It's hard to play catch up if you get off to a slow start. There aren't that many games in a campaign; it's not like a normal season where you can make up points over a longer period."

Brown has been Strachan's on-field lieutenant in recent matches but the return of Darren Fletcher to the squad following a lengthy battle with ulcerative colitis may mean the Manchester United midfielder assumes the captain's armband once more.

"I'm glad to see Darren back," Brown said. "He's a class player at Man United and when he was fit he was playing week in, week out under Sir Alex Ferguson. I'm not too sure what will happen with the captaincy. When we meet up I'm sure the gaffer will decide."

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