The anatomy of a qualified success
Campaign was the best yet... but what’s next?
dmg media (UK)
THE thrilling 3-3 draw with Norway may have been Scotland’s fifth successive match without a win but the celebrations that followed showed it wasn’t a night for dwelling on negatives. There is plenty of time to pick apart the current form and frailties of Steve Clarke’s men and, with 206 days to go until Euro 2024 kicks off in Germany next summer, much can change in the intervening period. Following such a momentous campaign, Mail Sport pulled together the three wise heads of MARK WILSON, JOHN McGARRY and BRIAN MARJORIBANKS and basked in the warm afterglow of an all too rare qualifying success, while casting one eye on the sunny days to come. Sum up the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign? MARK WILSON: Outstanding. The fact Scotland could afford a slight anti-climax in two closing assignments that should have carried real significance said it all about the quality of work done beforehand. Lasting memories were made during those five straight Group A victories that elevated the Tartan Army into disbelieving delight. In particular, the slaying of Spain at Hampden and those astonishing 104 seconds in Oslo will be recounted for years to come. JOHN McGARRY: The best ever. Yes, some Scotland sides of the past actually managed to top their groups. But let’s look at the context here. When the long wait to make it to Euro 2020 was finally over, it was via the back door of the play-offs. France ’98, when Craig Brown’s team finished second behind Austria, was the last time we’d taken the direct route. To grab this section by the scruff of the neck and win five games on the bounce — a record — was off the charts. BRIAN MARJORIBANKS: Simply wonderful. The most stress-free qualifying campaign of all time. It was surreal to be at Hampden on Sunday night to watch a highscoring 3-3 draw with Norway and know that it didn’t matter because we had already qualified for Euro 2024. Where was the usual knot in the stomach and the sense of impending dread? It is also testament to this team’s character that they did not lose either of their final two dead rubbers in Georgia or at home to the Norwegians. Which Scotland player, other than Scott McTominay, impressed you most during the campaign and why? BM: We are certainly not short of options. But John McGinn remains Scotland’s relatable superstar and the heartbeat of Steve Clarke’s impressive team. The Aston Villa man’s three goals in qualifying sees him joint sixth with Kenny Miller in the list of the nation’s alltime top scorers on 18. That’s quite the return for a midfielder. Unlike McGinn, all those above him — Ally McCoist, Lawrie Reilly, Hughie Gallacher, Kenny Dalglish and Denis Law — are recognised strikers. MW: Let’s have a word for the captain. Andy Robertson has previously been criticised by some in the Tartan Army for not quite replicating his Liverpool form in a dark blue shirt, but no one could claim that was remotely the case during Scotland’s winning streak. The left-back led by example. His performance in Norway was one of his best for his country, while his non-stop, harrying style set up goals against Spain and Cyprus. Robertson’s absence was felt in the final two qualifiers. JM: It’s not hard to see why Angus Gunn was so often on the cusp of selection for England. The Norwich keeper just exudes a quiet authority. The way he struck up an immediate rapport with the defence at the start of the campaign was notable. It says much that the only goal he lost in his first five competitive games was an Erling Haaland penalty. It’s no slight whatsoever on the other men in contention to state that Gunn will be one of the first names on the teamsheet next summer if he’s fit. How big a concern would it be for Clarke if Gunn somehow didn’t make it to Germany? BM: Huge. Gunn’s arrival on the international scene has been a big plus at the tail end of the golden years of Craig Gordon, Allan McGregor and David Marshall — although Gordon is hoping to battle back from serious injury to be at Euro 2024. Gunn has simply looked the part from the get go. Clarke clearly prefers Zander Clark to Liam Kelly but the five goals conceded in the two qualifiers he started in Georgia and at home to Norway have left question marks hanging over the Hearts keeper. JM: You would have to say it would be a huge blow. His record to date tells you as much. There have been more factors at play lately than a change of keeper but losing nine goals in three games still isn’t great. As things stand, Clark, present for two and a half of those matches, appears to be the manager’s back-up plan ahead of Kelly and Robby McCrorie. Fine keepers though they all are at club level, it’s a plain fact Gunn is simply a level above them. MW: Gunn’s recruitment was an inspired move by Clarke, with the Norwich City man bringing a calm authority on his introduction. Without being too critical of Clark, that same sense of assurance wasn’t replicated by the Hearts man in the games against Georgia and Norway. Which player outwith Clarke’s core group would you like to see force his way on to the plane to Germany? JM: Given the phenomenal job done by the squad to this point, this is a delicate matter. If someone is going to belatedly arrive on the scene and displace someone else, they have to be something special. But Harvey Barnes is special. And if the Newcastle forward is still minded to switch allegiances when fit, it would be remiss of Clarke not to consider him. MW: As witnessed to superb effect in Tbilisi, Lawrence Shankland is a striker capable of making an impact at crucial moments. The Hearts captain possesses a cleverness and clinical finishing ability that could be very valuable, even if just from the bench. After being left out of the original squad for the Georgia and Norway games, Shankland should be supporting Lyndon Dykes and Che Adams in Germany. BM: Ben Doak. The 18-year-old Liverpool forward is a generational talent and has already shown flashes of brilliance for his club and Scotland Under-21s. Clarke will mostly be loyal to the group of players who took the nation to Euro 2024 in style. But Doak looks like the future of Scottish football and, if he keeps impressing, he should be in Germany. What an option he could be off the bench. What will the manager have learned most from the past two matches? MW: Primarily, that he needs all his big players available. And that a three-centre-back system seems to offer more stability. The losses of Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney and Gunn were notable against Georgia and Norway. Aaron Hickey was also missed, although Nathan Patterson showed up better than others introduced. Operating with a back three was a way for Clarke to get Robertson and Tierney playing in the same system. A switch away from it was understandable given the change in personnel but Scotland looked very vulnerable to opposition breaks in both games. BM: It’s not exactly rocket science but watching Norway repeatedly target Greg Taylor in the left-back position was a reminder of the quality of the injured Robertson and Tierney and what they both bring to the team. Clarke will likely have ended the international camp with the firm belief that his favoured three-at-the-back system is the best way to shore up the team after watching Scotland uncharacteristically ship five goals in their final two qualifiers. JM: When all the players are hale and hearty, they perform better in a 3-4-3. Gunn is the best option in goal. Ditto Hickey at right-back. There are no players or magic combinations that can compensate for the absences of Robertson (above) and Tierney, while McTominay is more effective when free to roam further up the field. We have an abundance of options in midfield but are light up top. The make-up of the draw has yet to be completed. But, as things stand, who would you look to get and avoid from Scotland’s Pot 3 position next month? JM: England and France would be the two to avoid from the top shelf. Belgium topped their section, but it was weak. They are still relying on ageing players bombed out at the group stage in the World Cup. There would be no complaints about landing Hungary or Austria from Pot 2, while a reunion with Georgia in Pot 4 would hold few fears. BM: The way the projected seedings look, being in Pot 3 — and potentially avoiding the likes of the Netherlands, Croatia and Italy — looks more favourable than being in Pot 2. Denmark are the Pot 2 danger men and Switzerland (ranked 14) are better than their Pot 4 ranking suggests. Depending on how the pots finally look, a dream — albeit unglamorous — draw could be Portugal, Albania and Slovenia. MW: The likely top seeds are all predictably formidable, although Germany are more reliant on home advantage than current form. Any thought of a Euros rematch with England is probably best parked after events at Hampden in September. Scotland, though, won’t quiver at some of the other names in the draw. Depending on how the pots finally shake down, the likes of Austria, Romania and Serbia would be welcomed. Can Scotland get past the group stage for the first-ever time at Euro 2024? MW: Yes. And that must be the target. While it was great to be at the last Euros, two of the three group-stage performances were disappointing. The squad has improved since then, so Scotland should travel to Germany with quiet confidence. JM: Absolutely. Denmark and Ukraine both made it to the second phase in 2020 with three points, so it’s conceivable that beating the Pot 4 team might be enough. The concern, however, is scoring goals. We managed just one in three games last time around and Clarke’s options haven’t improved since then. BM: It will, of course, depend on how favourable the draw is in Hamburg next month. Scotland will also need to show they have learned the bitter memories of a dismal Euro 2020 where they lost two winnable home matches against Czech Republic and Croatia. The lack of a top-class striker and the team’s weakness in defence is a reason for negativity. But in terms of overall talent, we absolutely have what it takes to reach the knock-outs for the firstever time if we play to our full capabilities.