When qualifying for World Cups was routine for Scotland

The terms 'straightforward' and 'low key' have disappeared from the football lexicon deployed to describe success for the Scotland international team. Yet, these are phrases that casually trip from the tongue of Craig Brown to sum up the events at Celtic Park on '¨11 October, 1997.
Paul Lambert, left, and Tosh McKinlay, centre, salute the Scotland fans after all but securing a place at the 1998 World Cup finals. Picture: Gareth Reid/SNSPaul Lambert, left, and Tosh McKinlay, centre, salute the Scotland fans after all but securing a place at the 1998 World Cup finals. Picture: Gareth Reid/SNS
Paul Lambert, left, and Tosh McKinlay, centre, salute the Scotland fans after all but securing a place at the 1998 World Cup finals. Picture: Gareth Reid/SNS

The 2-0 victory over Latvia that afternoon made for the last time Scotland qualified for a major finals. The fact the 20th anniversary of the occasion arrives this Wednesday is hardly call for celebration. Even at the time, though, there weren’t scenes of abandon nearly as wild as those that accompanied Scotland doing no more than staying in the hunt to end the finals exile with the last-gasp winner over Slovakia at Hampden the other night.

There are a number of reasons for that. Chief among them is the fact Brown had moulded an efficient footballing unit that could be relied upon to get the job done – with purpose if not panache – when it came to reaching a major tournament.

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They had proved that in reaching the Euro ’96 finals immediately before heading into the World Cup qualifying campaign for France ‘98. Moreover, Scotland were then firmly a tournament team. Securing a summer jaunt across the channel in 1998 meant extending their World Cup finals sequence to six out of a possible seven.

“It was a routine happening, then,” said Brown yesterday. “Scotland were expected to be in finals regularly, and were. All these years later, with everything that has happened since, I don’t know if it was appreciated as much as it should have been then.”

There was another explanation for straining the satisfaction after the victory required to bank Scotland second place in their section behind Austria was secured by two headers – one from tournament talisman Kevin Gallacher just before the break and the other ten minutes from time that netted strike partner Gordon Durie his first Scotland goal in six years.

Brown’s men had to wait for Spain’s result at home to the Faroe Islands later that evening before knowing if they had earned the automatic qualification slot that came from being the best runners-up across the nine qualifying groups. They required the Spaniards to win, which they did, though not without a struggle. A goal for the Faroes meant they only took a 2-1 lead into the last six minutes, before a second goal of the night from Luis Enrique made the outcome certain.

The controlled, authoritative nature of the Scots’ display – “It was all about not making mistakes, and we didn’t make any,” Craig Burley said post-match – meant there was no such tension in an encounter Brown’s team revelled playing in at a sold-out Celtic Park; Hampden then out of commission as it was in the process of being redeveloped. More than the players, Channel 5 – the six month old terrestrial UK television channel, that was screening live a Scotland game for the first time – enthused over the experience. “It is a privilege to be here,” said commentator Gary Bloom.

“We liked playing at Celtic because the crowd were that bit closer to us; and could become that wee bit more involved,” said Gallacher, when delighting in recalling some “really happy memories” yesterday.

The striker had more reason than most to embrace representing his country at a ground which itself was also in the process of being reconstructed. The attendance that day was 47,000 because of the temporary stand erected behind the traditional Celtic end in advance of the 60,000 capacity stadium rebuild being completed with a permanent structure.

Gallacher achieving permanence in the position of number one striker for his country had seemed out of his reach before the France ‘98 qualifying campaign. He had become used to “playing second fiddle” before two leg breaks denied him an active role in Blackburn Rovers 1994-95 Premier League winning campaign.

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“I shouldn’t have been back playing top-level football after that, but I came back and fought for Euro ‘96 and then in the middle of the World Cup campaign it all changed.”

The pivotal game on the road to France ’98 turned out to be the low point. Estonia failing to show for the extraordinary farrago of an October 1996 qualifier in Tallinn – “We thought by kicking off against no-one and all that rigmarole, we would be awarded the game and instead we weren’t”, said Brown – meant the sides were ordered to meet in Monaco the next February. Scotland were poor, with the clamour to play Duncan Ferguson through the middle leading to a fifth straight appearance for the player in which Scotland, never mind the forward himself, didn’t score. “I learned a bit then and reshaped the team after that,” Brown admitted.

One change was to move Gallacher inside. He was in a central role for the subsequent home win over Estonia the next month and then when Scotland faced rivals Austria at Celtic Park in April 1997, he was able to revel in the role with a superb double in the best display by Scotland for years.

The double – “It could have been a hat-trick,” he said – brought him his first goals for the national side in three-and-a-half years. A matter of months later, with his goal in the Latvia clincher, his record read six goals in five qualifiers.

“Sometimes players have a golden time, and that was mine,” he said. “I was flying at Blackburn. And it was the icing on the cake, not just to have shaken off all the injury problems and go to a World Cup finals, but to go as top scorer for one of the best teams in Europe. Because that’s what we were or we wouldn’t have made the World Cup, even if people didn’t always look on us in that fashion.”

Strikers weren’t beloved figures in the Brown era Gallacher would contend, and he puts that down to a lack of understanding over how his national manager was seeking to fuse the talents of a capable, but not really charismatic, group of performers.

In one respect, Gallacher’s claim Scotland were a leading European side then brooks no argument. Of the 50 nations involved, only Italy, England and Norway conceded fewer goals in qualifying for France ’98. Indeed, with their closing game in the Euro ‘96 finals a 1-0 win over Switzerland, between 1996 and 1997 Brown’s men racked up seven consecutive clean sheets. “Jim Leighton was a huge part of that, and isn’t given the credit he should be. His record of 45 clean sheets in 91 caps is outstanding,” said Brown.

Gallacher would add that every individual played his part in the France ’98 qualifying campaign. “You can talk about a team defensive performance in the way we were set up. Strikers in that era, like Gordon Durie and Darren Jackson as well as me, tended to get a bit of stick over not scoring enough goals; not scoring as Coisty [Ally McCoist], Mo [Johnston] and Kenny [Dalglish] had.

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“But the most important thing for us was to serve what the manager wanted from us, and not what the supporters wanted us to be. We had to defend from the front to get the job done. And we did that 20 years ago. I remember waiting for the Spain result back at a Glasgow hotel that night and when it came, celebrating as if it was Christmas come early because then we knew we had a World Cup draw to get excited about, which felt like the next best thing.”

Two decades on, such delight would feel to Scotland fans like all their Christmases coming at once.