IN Germany next summer Scotland will begin the defence of our qualification for the Covid-delayed 2021 Euros. These are heady days for our international team. Back when Scotland routinely qualified for major international tournaments the heartache and despair came with a dash of slapstick.

When the tournament starts it will be 50 years since Scotland participated in the 1974 World Cup. That tournament was also held in Germany and Scotland’s appearance at the finals was their first in 16 years. It’s difficult now to convey how optimistic Scotland were that we could do well in West Germany in 1974.

This was at a time when most of Scotland’s players were regular starters for the top clubs in England. We also had several players from the Celtic side which had reached the semi-final of the 1974 European Cup. In our warm-up for the tournament we had easily beaten England 2-0 at Hampden.

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If you watch footage of the players’ celebrations at the end of that match you will see Jimmy Johnstone making rude signs towards the old Hampden press box.

Not only was Mr Johnstone possessed of world-class footballing ability, he seemed to have a special bond with those who paid to watch him play.

This was touchingly evident in the method he had chosen to prepare for the England game: getting howling with the drink along with several of his team mates during a night out in Largs. Then he’d decided to jump in a rowing boat without any oars which pulled him out into the Firth of Clyde. This required him to be rescued by the stout fellows of HM Coastguard.

Scotland’s football writers were outraged and got all sanctimonious about it. Hence Mr Johnstone’s two-fingered rebuke towards them.

Nevertheless, not only did we marmalise England in the old Home Championship, we dominated the World Champions Brazil in a 0-0 draw at the World Cup itself and were unbeaten in a group which also featured mighty Yugoslavia. If it hadn’t been for goal difference, we’d have been in with a shout for the semi-finals.

Two years earlier, after Scotland had hammered Denmark in Copenhagen during a European Championship qualifier (yes, you read that correctly), five Scottish players became involved in a night-club brawl. It spawned the world’s greatest pub quiz question: name the Copenhagen Five (answers at the foot of this column).

In 1978, Scotland qualified for the World Cup in Argentina. On the strength of victories against Czechoslovakia and, er … Wales our manager, Ally MacLeod convinced an entire nation that we could make the semi-finals … at the very least.

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How many nations’ supporters can say – hand on heart – that there was a moment when they genuinely believed they could be world champions?

I can tell you exactly what I was doing at the very point when I believed with all my heart that we could win the World Cup. This was a unique and special moment which will never be repeated.

But after a defeat by Peru and a 1-1 draw with Iran (whom few of us thought actually played football) we were out. A victory in the last game against Holland gave us a consolation that has endured through the ages: best goal ever scored at a World Cup. We also had our winger, Willie Johnston sent home in disgrace after failing a drugs test. If we’d had our Scottish parliament up and running by then, questions would have been asked in it.

In 1982, a pantomime collision between two of our best players – Willie Miller and Alan Hansen – led to the Soviet Union scoring the goal that would knock us out.

In 1986 we played for 88 minutes against ten-man Uruguay but couldn’t score the goal that would have seen us into the latter stages.

In 1990, Costa F***ing Rica beat us. By this time, squads of tabloid news reporters accompanied the Scotland team on their travels in the sure and certain knowledge of bacchanalian excesses occurring.

Few of us could have predicted after 1998 that Scotland would be condemned to a 23-year twilight existence wandering in the desert of international football.

I deluded myself into thinking that the break-up of the old Soviet Union and geopolitical upheaval in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia would make it easier for Scotland to qualify for major tournaments. But it turned out that Ukraine, Croatia, Serbia, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Slovenia were every bit as good as the mighty football nations which had spawned them.

The African nations which we thought we could spank owing to their impoverished infrastructure were actually spanking us. So were the Arab nations. While we were still playing in ploughed fields and hitting it long to Big Tam up front they were getting in Mediterranean and Latin American coaches and playing it short and tidy.

During that 23-year wilderness period the SFA took to commissioning Special Reports by top foreign coaches and then putting them in a safe that couldn’t be opened for 100 years. I long to know what secrets were interred in their pages.

Sports editors (including me) took to sending reporters to places like Denmark and Holland to seek answers to the question an entire nation was asking: why can every other country play sophisticated football while we still can’t trap a bag of cement?

The ideas for unlocking the mysteries of why Scotland had become murderpolis at football became ever more psychedelic. My own personal favourite involved rounding up a boatload of healthy and handsome young Scottish men and women and sending them on long-stay visas to Argentina and Brazil for the purposes of seducing their youth; bringing them back to Scotland and having children with them.

These boys would be two-footed; have the ability to pass without looking and have a natural affinity to that Mediterranean diet that everyone talks about. At a pre-appointed time they would be sent to a special training academy and be claimed for Scotland before the Argentinian and Brazilian football authorities could lay claim to them. By around about now Jimmy Gonzales, Roberto Turner and wee Billy Lopez would be forming the nucleus of a free-flowing, athletic and handsome-looking Scottish international team.

Thankfully, unknown to many of us, we were quietly forming a football alchemist called Steve Clarke with the ability to extract a little gold from lumpen metal. His Scotland can play a bit. In all of our previous qualifications we’ve never made it beyond the group stages. I believe Mr Clarke can scale that height too.

The Copenhagen Five: Billy Bremner, Willie Young, Arthur Graham, Pat McCluskey, Joe Harper.