WHEN the full-time whistle rang out at Hampden on Monday night and Scotland’s elimination from the Euros was confirmed, it was difficult for even the most ardent of Tartan Army foot soldiers to begrudge the ecstatic Croatians their victory. There was no shortage of industry on show from Steve Clarke’s players, no questioning their application: the general consensus was that they were simply defeated by a better team.

There is no shame in losing out to a side that only three years ago appeared in a World Cup final – particularly given the Scots’ tournament inexperience – but Scotland supporters wouldn’t be human if the result didn’t leave them deflated. We were outclassed, sure, but that didn’t mean the result was inevitable.

That’s certainly how John Collins sees it. The former Scotland internationalist was a key member of the last national team to feature at a World Cup finals, and was every bit as excited to see how the current crop would fare at this summer’s pan-continental competition. But for the one-time Hibernian manager, it was Scotland’s approach to the do-or-die clash in Mount Florida that was ultimately their undoing.

“There’s no doubt we were outplayed,” Collins explained. “The goal came at a bad time for us with Croatia scoring early. One thing they’re very good at is keeping possession. Once they get a goal in front it becomes difficult – they stretch the pitch, make it big and they’re comfortable with the ball at the back. Croatia make you chase the ball.

“The Scotland players put a lot of effort into it in the first half to get back in the game and we had chances – we really had chances. You simply have to take them when they come along at that level.

“I felt it was difficult once they took the lead. Our system is good at containing teams – when you have to go and try to force yourself to claw back a lead, it’s not really a great system to have five at the back. Croatia were very smart: they put three up top which kept the back give occupied. They play possession football so well.

“It was a tough night but the work rate, the application and the effort [from Scotland] was superb. The players gave everything but we were beat by a better team. Croatia had a real composure and calmness about the way they played, and a world-class 35-year-old who put in an incredible performance.

“The team is built around him and it’s a great example of a system put in place to ensure your best player is on the ball as much as possible. Credit to Croatia and to Luka Modric – he was pulling the strings and topped it off with a sublime goal.”

Some fans will have been grumbling when Clarke persevered with the team’s shape despite falling behind to Modric’s classy finish early on in the second half. Scotland’s default shape is defensive by its very nature and with the team desperately requiring a goal, Clarke stuck to his guns and the back three.

It’s a decision that Collins reckons harmed the team’s chances of dragging themselves back into the contest – but he stresses that it was a perfectly reasonable call from the Scotland boss. Hindsight, after all, is a wonderful thing.

Collins reasoned: “The system has proved successful in getting us to the tournament so I can understand why Steve stuck with it. We were playing with three central defenders and there was only one striker so we were 3v1 in that area, and the two wide players for Croatia occupied the wing-backs.

“It meant we were outnumbered everywhere else on the pitch. That system gives you protection in the middle of the pitch but the negative arrives when a team does what Croatia did and make you chase the ball.

“The early goal was a big problem – at 0-0 our system is fine, we can contain and play the way we did at Wembley. But when the opposition start keeping the ball and stretching you, it becomes an awful lot of work for the midfield three and the front two.

“Maybe in hindsight we could have changed to a 4-3-3 and that would have given us more players in the final third – with two players going up against a back four, you don’t have much chance of winning the ball.”

Attention will soon turn to the qualifying campaign for next year’s World Cup in Qatar and Collins is certain that Clarke and his staff will be leaving no stone unturned in their bid to learn lessons from the Euros. And the 53-year-old thinks there is one particular aspect of Scotland’s play that will need developed if we are to compete on the greatest stage international football has to offer.

“We competed in every game and created chances in every game, so that’s a big positive from the tournament,” he added. “The problem was that we didn’t hit the target with our final shots.

“We got into good positions but I think that going forward we have to get better at building from the back. These long balls forward might work in the qualifiers – against poorer opposition you get more success – but once you get to major tournaments, you need a little bit more craft.

“The main aspect that we have to work on as a team is building out from the back because we have good midfielders but you need to feed them. There’s a process but we have to get better at it. We were giving the ball away too cheaply.”

John Collins was speaking to the Herald and Times Sport in conjunction with William Hill.