SO near, yet so far. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe it is just never meant to be.

The dream that burned brightly before a ball was kicked in Group D was kept flickering at Wembley. At Hampden, it was extinguished as Scotland were eliminated from the European Championships.

There is no shame in losing to Croatia, but there can only be heartbreak at the outcome and the Tartan Army will watch the remainder of the tournament pondering what might have been.

For Steve Clarke and his players, this was their chance. It was one that they couldn’t take, though, as Callum McGregor’s first half equaliser proved to be the cruellest of all the false dawns supporters have suffered for many years.

It has been a long time, too long a time, since Hampden had the feel of a night of such significance for a Scotland game. This wasn’t just a big game, this was a potentially historic occasion in the making.

The National Stadium may have been down on numbers but it was still the twelfth man for Scotland. There have been goals scored here that weren’t met with the same level of noise that accompanied Clarke’s players as they made their way out to begin their warm-up 45 minutes before kick-off, or that followed each name as they were read out over the tannoy a quarter of an hour later.

There have been some depressing and demoralising evenings here over the years. On this night, all those abject displays, those hours spent in the wind and rain, were erased from the memory. This defeat will now join them, albeit in unique circumstances.

This one felt different. This one, of course, was different. The 23-year hurt had come to an end, but Scotland believed that their Euros journey wasn’t about to be concluded prematurely. We should have known better.

During the long, difficult months of lockdown, Scotland’s achievements in reaching these finals had given the nation a much-needed lift. During a season like no other, the experience of watching from afar or attending empty grounds had taken a toll.

Regardless of the result here, this was an occasion to cherish and be thankful for. This wasn’t football as we once knew it, and will know it again soon, but the game that we love, the sport that can inspire, took centre stage.

The generation of fans who can recall France ’98 from their childhood now have a new tournament to speak of in years to come. Those of an older vintage, many of whom may well have lost hope in the intervening years, will hope that 2020 is not one last hurrah.

Places at these finals always have to be earned. No nation – even one as interwoven in the fabric of the game as ours – has a divine right to be here or at any other competition but the Tartan Army can have reasons to be optimistic as this team and squad evolves and hopefully improves.

That is for another day, though. This night, this 90 minutes was all about the here and now and Hampden was a concoction of emotions – everything from belief to fear – before and during this encounter.

The opening bars of Loch Lomond were drowned out by a chorus of ‘Super John McGinn’ that started in the East Stand and worked its way round a bowl whose look and sound belied the empty spaces.

A couple of hours earlier, one member of the Tartan Army had started that same song in tribute to McGinn. One of the megaphones used by the turquoise-clad UEFA volunteers was borrowed before a few lines were belted out and a handful joined in to pay tribute to one of the darlings of the national support.

In the car park that was used by media and dignitaries, staff had an impromptu kick-about in between directing vehicles. Saltires were draped from house windows, flags were attached to cars and there was a feeling of togetherness in the Hampden surrounds.

Those with the sought-after tickets were the fortunate few. They travelled individually or with their nearest and dearest but would unite as a support once they stepped foot inside.

On the walk to the stadium – through groups young and old, of friends and of family – a lone piper serenaded those who arrived in hope as well as expectation. Scotland was ready, now Scotland had to deliver.

A blast of Boogie-ing and Baccara preceded the now familiar opening ceremony. Time would tell whether it would be the last time that the giant Scotland shirt was unfurled this summer.

If that was to be the case, Clarke needed his heroes to become national treasures. This was a night for legends to be made, for players to stand up and be counted.

From the first note of Flower of Scotland, the noise wouldn’t subside for some time and Clarke’s side would ride on that wave of emotion during the opening stages. Scotland had to start positively, and they couldn’t help but do so.

The outpouring at the whistle was visceral, while a challenge from McGinn – one which counted for little as the ball went out of play in the far corner – was met with the kind of reaction usually saved for game-changing moments.

Unfortunately for Scotland, the first one arrived after 17 minutes. Nikola Vlasic was left unmarked to finish with a composure that had been absent from Croatia’s play in their two previous matches against England and the Czech Republic.

The air was filled with defiance. The Tartan Army still believed. The chances that came and went proved that Scotland did as well and Clarke’s side looked at their most threatening when the game was frenetic and played at their pace rather than that of their opponents.

As half-time approached and hope began to fade, McGregor inspired Scotland and Hampden erupted in jubilation and relief. Craig Burley was no longer the last man to score a finals, no longer a quiz question answer, and Scotland were halfway there.

The temperature would drop around Hampden. The anxious tapping of feet or rubbing of hands would help keep the crowd warm but it was a goal that would really get the blood flowing as Scotland tried to assert themselves after the break.

That would prove in vain. The touch from Luka Modric – as he curled the ball away from David Marshall with the outside of his boot - was all class, the finish one that had to be admired regardless of the colour of your scarf.

The only sound on this occasion came from the band of Croatians away in the far corner. Scotland – as a team and a support – seemed winded, the blow such a tough one to stomach and attempt to recover from.

When Ivan Perisic glanced home a lovely header at the near post with 13 minutes remaining, there was no coming back. The game was over and Scotland were out.

Hampden wouldn’t roar this time. It could only commiserate and console. This time, like so many others, it just wasn’t meant to be for Scotland.