IF Scotland finally qualify for a major tournament and nobody is there to see it, did it really happen at all? We would just have to take their word for it, I suppose.

This has been the most mind-mangling of years. Normal behaviour has long fallen by the wayside, things that we once took for granted no longer certain. Scotland actually not tripping over the last two hurdles and instead springing majestically into next year’s rearranged Euro 2020 (or is it Euro 2021?) would perhaps be the biggest sign yet that these are strange times indeed.

The warm-up stuff begins this week but the real date with destiny, of course, won’t happen until October. And, in 2020 terms, that is still a long, long way away. Anything could happen between now and then. The first hope, then, is that the play-off with Israel goes ahead at all. And the next wish is that there will be at least some fans there to watch it in the flesh.

Scotland supporters have put in a thankless shift over the years. Nobody could contest that. So if their team are going to power convincingly past Israel in the semi-final (unlikely) or even blow it in devastating fashion (more likely) then they probably deserve to be there to see it for themselves.

The chances of there being at least some representation from the Tartan Army ought to become clearer following the test matches being lined up for a fortnight’s time. The trial at Murrayfield on Friday night seemed to pass without any major dramas so if Celtic and Rangers fans can behave similarly (this may be a big ask admittedly) then it ought to give encouragement and optimism that football supporters will be gradually allowed to return to matches.

Even a smattering of Scotland fans at Hampden on October 8 ought to help. And goodness knows we may need all the assistance we can get.

What sort of shape the Scotland team will be in by then is also anyone’s guess, although this Friday’s meeting between the two sides ought to give some kind of indication. That Israel are at Hampden at all is another curious development. And not one that can be blamed on the pandemic for once.

In beating Israel to top their UEFA Nations League C group, Scotland’s reward was a Euro 2020 play-off…..against Israel. That also saw them promoted into League B where one of their opponents will again be...Israel. It has the feel of an inescapable maze in a sprawling country estate. Or one of those children’s Choose Your Own Adventure books where a series of arbitrary decisions would somehow always lead you back to the same page.

Not knowing the opposition, then, can’t be used as an excuse if Scotland don’t make it to the play-off final. Less familiar, however, might be the home team themselves.

The core of Premier League players that normally permeate – and improve – Steve Clarke’s selections will be thrust into action on Friday on the back of a truncated summer break and without having yet played a league game.

They will hopefully be more up to speed by October but the enforced shift of the new English campaign’s start date could yet prove pivotal. Clubs worried by their talent overdoing it this year may lean on players to take the international break more literally and put their feet up rather than turning out for their country.

Question marks remain for Clarke both at the back and in attack. Just where to fit in Kieran Tierney has never been properly settled. And with Steven Naismith left out due to Hearts’ inactivity, where are the goals coming from? The three strikers in the group have 20 caps and just one goal between them. Friday’s dress rehearsal and the subsequent match against the Czechs may give us some hope and inspiration.

This has been a draining and unsettling year for everyone. Let’s hope the national team can deliver some much-needed cheer.


SCHOOLBOY pacts rarely last but there is one made in 1987 that has survived to this day. Hearing stories about, and seeing photos from, the St Mirren fans trip to Belgium for the Cup-Winners’ Cup tie with Mechelen, a pal and I agreed that the next time the team qualified for Europe we would definitely go. No matter whereabouts on the Continent it was, we would find a way to be there. And 33 years later we still haven’t reneged on that promise.

Of course, that one can be fully laid at St Mirren’s door. Since a purple patch in the 1980s when they seemed to spend more time in Europe than a backpacker with a travel pass, they have studiously avoided a return.

In the interim period Saints supporters have watched on with envy as fans of Dunfermline Athletic, St Johnstone, Gretna, Livingston, Partick Thistle, Queen of the South, Motherwell, Raith Rovers, Falkirk, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and Kilmarnock have all got to experience watching their team in European competition.

Fingers crossed Rangers, Celtic, Motherwell and Aberdeen get kind Europa League draws this week and go on to enjoy fruitful campaigns. And that their fans get to enjoy at least one overseas jolly as a result.