THE lesser football nations which defied pre-tournament expectations and reached the knockout rounds of Euro 2024 in Germany may all have exited the finals during the past seven days.

Yet, the involvement of Georgia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in the last 16 of the competition has still exacerbated the pain of Scotland’s sorry failure to make it out of the group stages for their supporters.

The same questions were asked repeatedly by dejected Tartan Army footsoldiers as those aforementioned countries – who are all placed below our national team in the current FIFA World Rankings – progressed last month.

Why couldn’t we have done the same thing? Why didn’t we cause formidable rivals the same sort of problems? Why couldn’t we have taken the same positive approach?

The agony of that wretched 1-0 defeat to Hungary in Stuttgart, a result which consigned Scotland to bottom spot in Group A and another early flight home, has not dissipated any with time.

If anything, the sense of frustration, of anger even, with how Andy Robertson and his compatriots capitulated has intensified. With very good reason. The performances of sides with a similar standing in the global game has put them to shame. Even in defeat.

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During the past week, the Netherlands have proved too good for Romania, Slovenia have been knocked out by Portugal on penalties, Georgia have been thumped by Spain and Slovakia have had their hearts broken by England.

But all of them were cheered and applauded off the park after the final whistle had blown in Munich, in Frankfurt, in Cologne and in Gelsenkirchen by followers who were appreciative of their gallant efforts and understanding of the difficulties they had faced in overcoming top quality opponents. 

(Image: PA) It is the manner in which Scotland came up short as much as the fact that Scotland once again came up short which is the bone of contention.

Football fans can accept defeat if they have seen their heroes having a right good go. They can not, however, accept their men serving up a display which is lacking in ambition in a must-win fixture. Like the one which was witnessed in the MHPArena. 

Clarke made a few headlines when he stated that he was keen to avoid calling up any “Negative Normans” – players who will sulk and sew disaffection in his squad if they are not involved – for Euro 2024.

But that is exactly what his side was in their final outing.  They dominated possession but failed to do anything with it. Their set pieces were, for the third game running, absolutely dire. They were unable to muster a single shot on target during the course of the 100 minutes.  

Your correspondent feared it would all end in tears long before the tournament got underway due to the unavailability of key players Aaron Hickey, Nathan Patterson and Lyndon Dykes as well as, to a lesser extent, individuals like Ben Doaks and Lewis Ferguson.

The inability of Che Adams, Ryan Christie, Billy Gilmour, John McGinn, Callum McGregor, Kieran Tierney and Scott McTominay to scale the heights they had reached during qualifying exacerbated matters. They lacked both the fitness and sharpness they had shown as they brushed aside Cyprus, Georgia, Norway and Spain last year. 

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Still, could Scotland not have given the Tartan Army, who descended on Munich, Cologne and Stuttgart in their hundreds of thousands, more to cheer? Could they not have thrown caution to the wind just a little bit? Would it have killed them to be just a touch more attack-minded?

Steve Clarke was clearly, with Anthony Ralston having to slot in at right wing-back in the absence of Hickey and Patterson and centre-half Grant Hanley having played one full game in four months, of the opinion that doing so would have left them too exposed and led to disaster. But how Georgia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia have fared suggests otherwise.

(Image: PA) There was a moment in Slovenia’s last Group C game against England in the RheinEnergieStadion – an outing which they needed avoid defeat in to get through – when Zan Karnicnik surged forward and squared to Andraz Sporar just in front of goal.

That passage of play did not result in the deadlock being broken. But there were no fewer than six light blue jerseys in the opposition penalty box and one lurking just outside it at that moment. Against the pre-tournament favourites. At what stage in proceedings were there ever six dark blue strips in the final third? It is difficult to remember them showing the same sort of intent.

Goals were not a problem for Scotland in qualifying. They netted 17 times in eight games, the same as the Netherlands and Austria amassed in their respective sections and more than Italy, Turkey, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Slovakia managed in theirs.

Perhaps not having a full-strength and fully fit side was the issue. But the national team have to do more going forward, have to entertain not just contain, in their Nations League matches later this year and their World Cup qualifying campaign thereafter if Clarke is to win a disillusioned fanbase back around. Smaller countries have shown it can be done.