‘Time to dream and time to dread as Scotland face destiny’

Tom English

BBC Scotland’s chief sports writer in Stuttgart

4 hours ago

To be in Germany these past few weeks is to understand the enormous power of football in Scotland and its ability to mobilise people in the most extraordinary way.

The singing of Flower of Scotland before the Switzerland game in Cologne did not come from the larynx, it came from the heart.

The noise level was not a product of a desire to survive in this tournament, but a desperation.

Two days after it was over, John Carver, a gnarled Geordie whose role as assistant to Steve Clarke came via other jobs in England, Canada and Cyprus, spoke about the anthem and was still visibly moved by what he heard that night.

The Tartan Army shy away from the norm, through their weight of numbers and their desire to be wherever the party is at.

If that means walking or cycling to Germany, then so be it. If it means travelling a mind-bogglingly circuitous route from home to here, it’s all part of the adventure.

These stories going around are unforgettable. People flying in from Australia, Argentina and Azerbaijan. Families and lads on the lash.

All ages. All human life. And now all of them with eyes on Scotland versus Hungary in Stuttgart on Sunday.

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‘Hope lives. Actually, hope thrives’

Before addressing such a land of opportunity, a day of destiny if you like, let’s revisit a time when hope did not exist – and neither, pretty much, did the Tartan Army. Certainly not the kind of Tartan Army seen here in Germany these past few weeks.

To appreciate where Scotland are now you have to go back to where they were when Clarke took charge.

A run of his early games at Hampden saw tumbleweed in the old place – 32,432 against Russia, 25,524 against Belgium, 20,669 against San Marino, 19,515 against Kazakhstan.

It’s true they come into this game against Hungary as underdogs, both in world rankings and bookmakers’ odds. It’s also true they have only won a single game of their past 11 and have conceded 27 times in that run.

McGinn on Hungarian cousins ‘win-win’ scenario

They have sustained awful injuries to big players – Aaron Hickey, then Lyndon Dykes and, just this week, the nightmarish loss of Kieran Tierney.

They have scored twice in this tournament but a Scot did not get the final touch on either occasion.

And yet hope lives. Hope, actually, thrives. Hope has propelled the masses from Cologne to Stuttgart, still singing, still believing.

Scotland never having qualified for the knockout stages of a major championship is one of the great curiosities of the global game. It’s perverse.

Denis Law, Jimmy Johnstone, Billy Bremner, Kenny Dalglish, Danny McGrain. Never made it. Graeme Souness, Sandy Jardine, John Robertson, Willie Miller, Alex McLeish. Tried and failed.

Great players. Properly great. And down the years, dozens more along with them.

You could write a TV series about the epic nature of it – Game of Throw-Ins? – but would struggle to capture the essence of it.

‘Every Scot will go through a human tumble dryer’

So, does Sunday join the list of failures or break the mould?

A win will take Scotland through. If you have the head of a boffin, you can present a scenario where a draw will suffice. If you want to get comedic about it, a 0-0 might do it. Scotland might advance having not had one of their own players put the ball in an opponent’s net.

Given the near misses of before, that ludicrous landscape would be, frankly, hilarious.

For this day of days, Clarke has a choice or two to make.

Now that Tierney is out, does the three at the back system – designed to get himself and Andy Robertson on to the field together – go with him? Or does the three remain with Scott McKenna replacing Tierney?

Clarke does not do curveballs in his selection. He goes for clarity and consistency, so the likelihood of any other changes looks remote.

He could do with John McGinn rediscovering the kind of form that sees him eulogised in song.

McGinn has worked hard but has not brought his best stuff to Germany. Not yet. Maybe this is his moment. Maybe this is Scotland’s moment.

They have suffered upset through the loss of important players. They have been on the end of a savaging by Germany. They have stared down the barrel of an early exit, a dark time that played out against a backdrop of brutal criticism.

But they are a resilient lot. They have got character.

This promises to be a scarier ride than any rollercoaster, a stomach-churning trip to the wild side.

Every Scot in Stuttgart and beyond is expecting to go through a human tumble dryer on Sunday. A time to dream and a time to dread. Every emotion in one momentous package.

Got a message for the Scotland squad? Leave it here…

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