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Scotland: From Kazakh horror show to World Cup brink

Kazakhstan v Scotland, 2019
Scotland endured a chastening night in Astana back in 2019
World Cup play-off semi-final: Scotland v Ukraine
Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Wednesday, 1 June Time: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Listen to live commentary on Sportsound and follow live text updates on the BBC Sport website & app

Ten minutes into a heinous European qualifier in Kazakhstan, it was impossible to imagine Scotland at a major finals, let alone two games from their second in as many years.

In March 2019, on a cool night in Astana, Scotland were humiliated.

Alex McLeish’s men trailed 2-0 after two horrific early concessions in their opening game of the campaign. Scotland hadn’t faced such a deficit so early since May 1975 and a 5-1 thrashing by England. They didn’t register a shot on target before 55 minutes. By then, the score was 3-0.

It was a wretched trouncing from a team 67 places beneath Scotland in the Fifa rankings. Feelgood was eviscerated before it had even had a chance to build.

After two decades of international despondency, this felt like another crushing new low.

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The Clarke effect

McLeish limped on a little longer, but the fall-out from the Kazakhstan mortification was impossible for him to survive. Too many had turned against him. The anguished cries from the Tartan Army grew too loud to ignore and worst of all, the resigned apathy towards the national team reached unprecedented levels.

By mid-April, a year into his second stint as manager, he was gone.

There was great clamour for Steve Clarke to succeed him, and little wonder. Clarke had proven himself a fine coach, wringing every drop out of the Kilmarnock players at his disposal.

Under Clarke, Killie were fiendishly hard to beat and terrifically organised.

Steve Clarke
Steve Clarke secured a late win in his first match as Scotland manager against Cyprus

He took them from 11th in the Premiership to fifth with a record points tally in his first season at Rugby Park, then bettered that haul en route to third spot and Europe in his second. That summer, he was named PFA Scotland manager of the year.

Still, after a slender win over Cyprus, Clarke’s work was cut out with back-to-back matches against Belgium and Russia after which the aggregate scoreline was 11-1.

The football during those early throes was not pretty, but the signs were encouraging and there was a Nations League safety net. After an interminable goalless draw with perennial opponents Israel, Scotland made the Euro 2020 play-off final via penalties. That set up a shootout with Serbia, and the glorious opportunity to reach the promised land.

Scotland boogie again

Next came Ryan Christie’s tears, David Marshall’s saves, screenloads of memes, gallons of booze and a heady euphoria. Scotland had made it.

Thanks to a questionable dance video from defender Andy Considine’s stag do, Yes Sir, I Can Boogie became Scotland’s tournament anthem.

New heroes emerged, captivating the imagination of young fans, giving a generation people to idolise and reasons to believe. Andrew Robertson, Billy Gilmour, Kieran Tierney, John McGinn and Lyndon Dykes became national icons.

Marshall: Scotland’s hero in Serbia

The start was rather anticlimactic; a 2-0 Hampden loss to Czech Republic. The second game was anything but. There was an invasion of London and a party at Wembley when Scotland battled to a goalless draw.

Back home, with bars restricted to a 22:00 closure by Covid rules, a mass revelling in George Square followed when the pubs emptied and merry punters careered on to the streets.

Luka Modric and Croatia brought Scotland back to earth with a thud. The comprehensive 3-1 defeat was something of a reality check, a reminder that hope and passion alone cannot carry a team deep into major tournament finals.

World Cup fever builds

Swept along on a tsunami of hope, Scotland have not lost in eight games.

They won their final six World Cup qualifiers and two play-offs, against Ukraine and then Wales, lie between them and Qatar.

Denmark, the qualification group winners, were put to the sword at Hampden. So too Austria in Vienna. Yet another duel with Israel ended in a last-gasp Scott McTominay winner; a goal so ugly in its execution but so beautiful to the Tartan Army.

The play-off semi-final was delayed, of course, by the ongoing devastation in Ukraine. Scheduled for 24 March, what is sure to be an emotionally charged evening is now just days away.

Clarke has lost key defender Kieran Tierney to injury and no matter how dearly Scotland long to end their World Cup exile, there will be a strong swell of goodwill behind the visitors.

Win that, and an intoxicating trip to Cardiff beckons, a face-off with the Welsh for a place at the big show.

So cling on for the ride. After an age in the footballing doldrums, it’s fun following Scotland again.

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