IT has been an awfully long time, just a week short of 23 years or 8,390 days to be precise, since a Scotland team last played in a game at a major tournament.

At certain points since the humiliating 3-0 defeat to Morocco at France ’98 - as qualifying bids ended in ignominious failures or agonising near misses, as the quality of performances nosedived, as the national team tumbled down the FIFA World Rankings - it seemed doubtful this country would ever grace a finals again.

So seeing Steve Clarke’s men take part in Euro 2020 this month will be savoured by every fan regardless of how they fare after a fallow period that has spanned four decades.

All of the pain that has been suffered will make watching the Group D meetings against the Czech Republic at Hampden today, England at Wembley on Friday and Croatia in Glasgow a week tomorrow all the sweeter for longsuffering Tartan Army footsoldiers.

It is wonderful, too, for youngsters who have never before known what it is like to cheer on players clad in dark blue on such a grand stage. It will hopefully have a positive impact on both the popularity of and participation in the sport in future.

The sense of anticipation and excitement in classrooms, living rooms, fan zones, retirement homes and pubs – in the socially-distanced beer gardens anyway – from Lerwick to Langholm is tangible.

With good reason. Joining the continent’s elite, the likes of Belgium, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, in the 16th staging of the UEFA European Championship is a magnificent and momentous achievement. It should be celebrated accordingly.

After a terrible 15 months, during which the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on society, caused widespread misery and claimed the lives of millions around the globe, it is important to do so.

Ian Maxwell, the Scottish FA chief executive, certainly anticipates the competition will raise the morale of the population amid a crisis that is without precedent in modern times. 

“The last year has been challenging for everyone, in particular children,” said Maxwell. “We hope that we can help inspire a nation and hopefully give everyone something to cheer about.” 

Yet, it is also vital that Scotland make their presence felt, perform to the very best of their abilities and vie strongly for a place in the knockout rounds of a major tournament for the first time in their history.

Just because it has been 23 years since they featured does not mean they can simply turn up and go through the motions. A nation expects. They must deliver.

The fact that nobody in the 26-man squad has past experience of being involved in a major tournament – and newcomers Billy Gilmour of Chelsea, Nathan Patterson of Rangers and David Turnbull of Celtic were not even born when France ’98 took place – can be no excuse for disappointing showings. 

Their section is certainly tough. England (fourth), Croatia (14th) and the Czechs (40th) are all ranked higher than Scotland and are all fancied more strongly by bookmakers. Andy Robertson and his team mates are 250-1 outsiders.

Yet, while it is asking too much to expect them to lift aloft the Henri Delaunay trophy after the final at Wembley on July 11, it is not unreasonable to hope they can make it through to the last 16. The best four third-placed teams go through. Just one win could be enough. That is well within their capabilities. 

It would be pushing it a touch to describe this as a golden Scottish generation. But some truly exceptional, world-class in some cases, players will take to the field in Mount Florida this afternoon. They will be, if they hit their peak, a match for anyone they come up against.

In defence, Robertson of Liverpool, a Champions League and Premier League winner with Liverpool, and Kieran Tierney, a multiple champion with Celtic and a former FA Cup winner with Arsenal, are among the best left backs on the planet.

Clarke has successfully incorporated them both into the same starting line-up by putting his faith in a three man defence. They certainly dovetailed beautifully, both at the back and going forward, in the play-off final triumph over Serbia in Belgrade back in November.

Ahead of them, Scott McTominay, who will play in his favoured central midfield berth due to injuries to both Ryan Jack of Rangers and Kenny McLean of Norwich City, had matured into an exceptional footballer this term. The Manchester United man was the Old Trafford club’s best player in the Europa League final last month.

Ahead of him, there will be John McGinn of Aston Villa. He may be known as “Meatball” to his pals because of his bulky physique, but he is certainly no doughball when it comes to the international game. His directness, awareness, bravery and eye for goal have posed all sorts of problems for rival rearguards since he was shunted forward into a more advanced role by Clarke.

He was the second top scorer in Group I in Euro 2020 qualifying. The seven goals he plundered were matched by Romelu Lukaku of Belgium and only pipped by Artem Dzyuba of Russia who bagged eight. That was rather illustrious company to be in.

The spectacular overhead kick that he netted with five minutes of the World Cup qualifier against Austria at Hampden back in March remaining to earn Scotland a draw was a timely reminder what he is capable of when he is under pressure.

But goals should not be a problem. Che Adams of Southampton, Lyndon Dykes of Queens Park Rangers and Kevin Nisbet of Hibernian have a variety of different strengths and have proved, despite having less than 20 caps between them, they can be clinical when they receive sufficient service. 

Fans will welcome the presence of Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Christie, John Fleck, Ryan Fraser, Gilmour, Callum McGregor, Stephen O’Donnell, Patterson and Turnbull on the pitch too.

The Scotland rearguard is a concern. Liam Cooper of Leeds United, Grant Hanley of Norwich, Jack Hendry of Celtic and Scott McKenna of Nottingham Forrest have all enjoyed good seasons at club level. But none of them have ever been completely convincing for their country.

Declan Gallagher has. He was sensational in both of the play-off games last year. But the Motherwell man’s form has dipped and he was left out of all three Qatar 2022 qualifiers. The backline is a potential weak area that opponents can exploit.

But Clarke, the Chelsea great, former Newcastle United, Chelsea and Liverpool assistant, and ex-Reading, West Brom and Kilmarnock manager, has proved he can coax the very best out of his charges many times.

If he can do so again, and he has had more time on the training ground with his men than at any time before in his two year tenure in the build-up to Euro 2020, then he can meet supporters’ expectations, give them more to shout about and make those 23 years of hurt a distant memory.