WE may not be much cop at football at international level anymore, but at self-flagellation, Scotland are world champions. The only thing worse than the sinking feeling you get as you troop out of the gloom of a half-empty Hampden after another reminder of our place in the scheme of things, is the sure knowledge that days of post-mortems and navel-gazing about youth development are to follow.

But a phrase within that previous sentence perhaps reveals a huge part of the problem when the national side take to the field, in that the players are all too aware of what our self-proclaimed place in the scheme of things currently is.

We are the plucky losers, the wee nation that might produce the odd gem here and there, or the odd shock result, but qualifying for major tournaments? Nah, that’s just not us. We seem to be quite comfortable in our own wee rut, thank you very much.


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How else do you explain the reaction of our international players to going a goal up against Russia early on at Hampden a week ago?

With a loud - if not exactly packed - Hampden Park behind them and their tails up, that should have been the signal to go for the kill, to finish off the startled-looking visitors before they could recover.

Instead? The body language of the players reminded me of big Dave Narey after he smashed us ahead against Brazil at the 1982. The look on his face as he pirouettes to celebrate with his teammates is a mixture of delight and dread, at once joyous with what he has pulled out of the hat but somehow at the same time conveying the question on the minds of every anxious Scot watching; ‘What have we done?’

As it happens, Narey was right to be trepidatious after poking the Brazilian bear out of its slumber, but this was the team of Falcao, Socrates and Zico. Artem Dzyuba, Aleksander Golovin and Yuri Zhirkov, fine players that they are, shouldn’t have struck such fear into our modern-day Bravehearts. Instead of a dark blue charge, the white flag was hoisted, and against the instructions of manager Steve Clarke our players retreated into their shells to give Russia the run of the place.

Among the Scotland line-up on the night was our captain, Andy Robertson, who won the Champions League with Liverpool in May, some of the key players who have won everything in sight for Celtic over the past three years and a midfielder in Scott McTominay who has confounded his critics to become a regular starter for Manchester United. There was the top assist provider in the English Premier League last season in Ryan Fraser, too. In other words, the side was full of winners.


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The trouble is, when these players pull on the dark blue, they seem transformed. It is as if the belief seeps from them. Having that lion rampant on the chest can either make it swell and have the wearer perform above and beyond their normal level, or it can make a player shrink into themselves with the weight of expectation that it carries.

That expectation used to be the wholly unrealistic one that Scotland should be winning just about every game, no matter the opponent, but the modern expectation of catastrophe has now become an enormous albatross around the necks of the players too.

We seemed much more at home come Monday evening, slipping into that familiar role of the willing loser like a comfortable pair of slippers. So browbeaten by failure have we become that we welcome it and encourage it like an abusive spouse.

No one is saying we should be beating Belgium by the way, but we should be inspiring a little more from the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku than their gracious if patronising post-match comments on our team. The visiting superstars mercifully stopped short of ruffling our hair.

Hampden used to inspire fear in visiting teams, but now it is the home players and fans who are crippled with anxiety at the thought of going there.

There is of course more to two decades of failure at international level than a simple lack of belief or a loser’s mentality, with the debate over how we develop players and the standard of coaching at all levels worthy ones.


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But the frustrating thing for the Tartan Army right now is that – as noted above – we do currently have some fine talent. It’s not as if the migration of the game from its working-class street roots to the astroturf pitches that are the preserve of the middle-classes is a peculiarly Scottish phenomenon. And, believe it or not, kids the world over have access to Playstations, too.

That’s not to say that Kris Boyd didn’t have a point about widening access to football, but to say we’re not producing players anymore because of societal issues which aren’t peculiar to Scotland just doesn’t stack up.

Other nations of a similar size would love to have the calibre of player available to Scotland, but while the likes of Northern Ireland perform greater as a whole than the sum of their parts, we are currently doing the opposite.

For me, a major problem is the mentality that this is Scotland, we’re not supposed to be winning. Things aren’t supposed to be going well. The old self-deprecating jokes have now become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s just not funny anymore.

Steve Clarke has a job on his hands to rouse his team and an apathetic nation for the play-offs in March. But as the old movie line goes, build it, and they will come.

Perhaps with the shackles off in the next four games, and with an injection of youth from the likes of Billy Gilmour, we can rise and be a moderately successful football nation again.


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If he manages that, Hampden will be brimming with fans - and belief - come the Spring.


ANOTHER unfortunate offshoot of Scotland's early Group I exit - for the SFA at least - is that they have a Sunday evening game against San Marino coming up to sell tickets for.

An easy PR win for them would be to announce that tickets have been reduced to, say, a fiver across the board, generating some welcome good feeling after they grossly over-priced tickets at the outset of the campaign. Taking it to smaller stadium might be a good idea too.

The trouble is, they have already sold tickets to supporters as part of a package for the home qualifiers, so it looks as though a half-empty Hampden (at the very best) awaits.

I, for one, can hardly wait.