Alan Pattullo: A leap of the imagination may be needed, but bring on Euro 2020
There are many intriguing issues guaranteed to be resolved in the coming months. Will Rangers put an end to Celtic’s title hegemony? Can Hearts stop the club’s current trend of decline and avoid relegation? Will Dundee United finally make it back to the top flight?
Another question, probably the most burning one of all considering the length of time since Scotland last made it to one, is whether Steve Clarke’s international side will make it to a major finals.
For the first time since 1998, we enter a year where there’s a major finals taking place still in with a chance of our being included. Of course, back in January 1998, it was already confirmed Scotland would be competing at France 98, having finished runners-up in their group. It was even known that they, along with Brazil, would kick the whole shebang off.
Unusually, considering they are still to complete the hard part and negotiate two play-off games, Scotland again already know against whom they will be playing and on what dates. Or, in what is the Bullseye scenario – ie look at what you could have won – they know who they won’t be facing.
At the start of a year, optimism tends to abound. Thus, the hope is Scotland will be there to host Czech Republic at Hampden in the first game. Everyone is also well aware that the next fixture will then be against England at Wembley on 19 June. What a Friday night that promises to be. Equally, what a potential nightmare.
For there’s every possibility that Scotland will not be present. Instead, Israel, Serbia or Norway fans will be frolicking in the fountain at Trafalgar Square. Worse, they could be filling up the bars around Hampden as Scots try desperately to pretend there’s other things they would prefer to be doing than watching their side play in a showpiece occasion on home turf.
Because, for all the agony, for all the heartache involved in following the national side’s fortunes, there’s not yet been a time where we’ve sat out our own party.
The closest was in 1966, when Scotland failed to qualify for a World Cup being hosted by their neighbours England. When another tournament arrived south of the Border, 1996’s European Championship finals, Scotland made no mistake.
They even bagged a game v England on a never-to-be-forgotten afternoon of 15 June. On the same date this year they are due to kick off their first appearance in a major finals for over 20 years against Czech Republic. Scotland are due to finish off their Group D schedule against Croatia on 23 June – another lip-smacking prospect.
So, no pressure lads. No pressure Steve. Such is the scale of yearning, some are confident Scotland will be willed to the finals whatever the obstacles in their way.
There are, you see, such inconvenient considerations as Scotland rarely winning away matches that matter. They will have to do so in order to line up against Czech Republic in 165 days’ time because the draw means Scotland must play the winners of the Norway v Serbia tie in either Oslo or Belgrade if they are able to get past Israel at Hampden.
So really, while a big, potentially historic year stretches ahead for the international team, it really comes down to what happens in Glasgow on 26 March in the first instance.
Even then, should Clarke’s side prevail, it will be all about what is, effectively, a cup final five nights later. Brace yourselves and strap in for the ride.