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The Scottish Mail on Sunday - 2021-11-21

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A glorious snapshot of a future we can believe in

Gary Keown

Gary Keown

THERE is one charming, unguarded image from Scotland’s excellent win over Denmark that reinforces the already compelling reasons to believe in this improving squad. A fleeting snapshot that adds to the sense of anticipation, rather than fear, ahead of Friday’s draw for the World Cup play-offs in Zurich. We’re in time added-on. Steve Clarke’s side are two goals to the good. An Anders Dreyer corner from the right is plucked out of the air by Craig Gordon and, as the Hearts goalkeeper shakes his head and instructs a nation to cool the beans, the camera cuts to the home bench. Kieran Tierney, Andy Robertson and Ryan Christie are all still in their dark blue shirts, having been substituted, glued to the game. Robertson is laughing like a drain, Christie is drinking a bottle of juice and Tierney still can’t take his eyes off the action, looking like he’s kicking every ball, willing the referee to raise the whistle to his lips. Billy Gilmour has put his trackie top on. He is also wearing a smile as wide as the Clyde and clapping his hands excitedly, eyes darting everywhere as if to soak in everything going on. Like a little schoolboy taken to his first big match at Hampden rather than the guy destined to be the national stadium’s on-field conductor for as long as he wants. To an outsider, they could be mistaken for four random young laddies just having a night out at the football together. To us Scots, they represent so much of what is good about a collection of players that, although still requiring greater consistency, has offered hope we might just have the makings of a team again. A proper team that can really do something special. No offence to Christie, a talented player who was great on Monday. However, Robertson has won the Champions League and the title with Liverpool. Tierney cost Arsenal £25million and could move on for much more. Gilmour has been marked out for stardom since Chelsea bought him at 15. They are big-time. But they don’t act like it. They give the impression of being still in love with football and, be assured, that cannot be said about all professional players. With Robertson, Tierney and Gilmour as key figures in the set-up, along with the likes of the hugely personable John McGinn, it is any wonder the bond around the camp seems so positive, that there are no rumblings of cliques or discontent or that there is mounting evidence to suggest things really are clicking on the park, too? Clarke deserves huge credit for all of this. Just as he deserves praise for being modest and perspicacious enough to know, even aged 58, that he can still learn things, tweak his approach and react positively to his mistakes. He has got things wrong during his two-and-a-half years in charge. He picked players early on that were never internationalists. He should have started Gilmour and Che Adams against the Czechs in the European Championship. However, he bounced back, using his antennae and his instincts well, as a guy with his exceptional grounding in the game should. There have been high points in his reign. Waymarkers that made you feel that, despite evident mis-steps, the national team was going in the right direction. The 0-0 draw at Wembley in the Euros underlined the importance of Gilmour and, to a lesser degree, Adams. Were it not for one great Jordan Pickford save and a little more composure from the Southampton forward, that could easily have been a victory. Beating Serbia on penalties in Belgrade in the Euro 2020 play-off, a result that should have been secured in 90 minutes, seems all the more impressive now that the former Yugoslav nation made it to the World Cup directly ahead of Portugal. The 1-0 victory in Austria in September was massive too, a surefire way to quieten those of us who felt — wrongly, it must be said — that the SFA had been premature in giving Clarke an extended contract until 2024. Denmark was something else, though. The intensity of the first half was electrifying. The defending and counter-attacking in the second 45 really, really good. It was a night to make a generation see what is possible. Like the 2-0 Hampden win over France, Mo Johnston’s header squirming through Joel Bats and over a rain-lashed goalline, that put Italia 90 within reach. Or the 3-1 home win over Spain ahead of Mexico 86, Kenny Dalglish running on to that lay-off from Davie Cooper before finding the top corner and turning round with the trademark grin that proved he never, ever lost his love for this remarkable game either. Sure, Denmark had done their job in the group. However, they had won nine out of nine beforehand, had reached the last four of Euro 2020. And we gave them a good going over. Last Monday felt different. It felt more complete, like something really taking shape. Things unfolded within it that make you feel the stars are aligning for Clarke and his team, too. Adams’ late goal, clinical and emphatic, could be huge for him after a few performances in which he looked uncertain, like he was trying too hard. From lacking options in attack, we now have him, Lyndon Dykes and a wildcard in Jacob Brown, who can bring a different attacking option off the bench along with players such as Christie. Central defence has long been a weak link, too. Yet, there is a sense the storm is also passing there. Tierney is settled in a back three. Liam Cooper plays steadily in the English Premier League for Leeds United and, after being something of a bit-part player for Scotland, really needed the display he produced against the Danes. Even though Clarke likes Grant Hanley, Cooper brings pedigree. Jack Hendry and John Souttar are on the up again while Scott McTominay has shown himself well capable of doing a job on the right side of the rearguard. In truth, if everyone is fit, it might be the only place McTominay — a Manchester United regular, remember — can get a game. Gilmour and Celtic captain Callum McGregor look a great mix in midfield along with McGinn. Gilmour brings the technique to keep the ball moving and dictate play. McGregor is full of cleverness, game awareness and passing. And McGinn is a buzzbomb who trades in the valuable currency of goals. At one stage, finding ways to squeeze wide men such as James Forrest and Ryan Fraser into Clarke’s three-at-the-back set-up was a headache. Less so now. Particularly when it comes to Fraser, pictured training at Newcastle after pulling out of the squad. If Gilmour and Nathan Patterson can get more game time between now and the play-offs in March and Gordon can carry on his Indian Summer, we could be even better-set by the time of those fixtures. Sure, we’ll need luck in Friday’s draw. We don’t want Italy as prospective opponents in the final. It might also be good to avoid Portugal. A home game for that winner-takes-all affair would be lovely too, thank you very much. Just enough to have us dreaming of a night even more momentous than last Monday. A night of Robertson and Gilmour and Tierney laughing and joking and acting, once more, like the wee boys they were when going to a World Cup was little other than a playground pipedream. A night to transport us all back, however briefly, to those wonderful little moments when football felt like it was all you ever needed to be happy.

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