Date: 24th June 2021
A review of Scotland’s performance at their first finals of a major tournament in 23 years by Ben Ramage, Reach Plc sports journalist and SFSA writer.
Scotland roared again at a major tournament – that counts as progress
Don’t be sad it’s over, be glad that it happened.
I’ll be honest, I couldn’t have written that sentence leaving Hampden Park on Tuesday.
I was absolutely devastated that we’d left our first major tournament in 23 years with what felt like a bit of a whimper.
All of the battle, grit and determination that permeated a superb 90-minute showing at Wembley only surfaced against Croatia, in what was essentially a winner-takes-all cup final, for the last five minutes of the first half.
I was also hugely frustrated with Steve Clarke’s refusal to take the game by the scruff of the neck at half-time when the visitors were clearly dominating proceedings.
Having clawed our way back to level terms at the break, with a goal that will live long in the memory of the Tartan Army, despite not playing anywhere near our best, we were still absolutely in with a chance of finding a winner in the second half and going on to create a piece of history Scottish football has craved for decades.
But, instead of making some positive substitutions to try and turn the tide with Croatia enjoying nearly 70 per cent of the possession on the Hampden turf, Clarke sat in and hoped for the best.
It was no surprise to see his team do the same. The midfield started to sit so deep it looked like we were playing eight at the back at times.
So it was also no great surprise to see Luka Modric curl a superb strike into the top corner from the edge of the box to fire a dagger into Scottish hearts.
If you give a player with that amount of quality time and space in a dangerous position, you are going to get hurt.
Now it’s easy to be the manager of Hindsight FC. Everybody has been at it since the full-time whistle blew and we knew our hopes were extinguished.
It’s especially easy when there’s no way of proving whether the changes would have made any difference to the final result.
But I can’t help but feel that if Clarke had made two positive attacking changes at half-time, such as bringing on James Forrest or Nathan Patterson for Stephen O’Donnell and Ryan Christie or Ryan Fraser for Stuart Armstrong, fresh impetus and energy could have brought Scotland back into the game.
At the end of the day, we needed a win just as much as our visitors did, and our best chance of doing that was to force Croatia back into their own half and away from David Marshall’s goal.
Instead, we sat in, allowing the classy Croatians to play around us until they finally unpicked our stubborn defence and midfield block with a piece of class from the Real Madrid man.
I have no qualms with the strike, or the quality of Inter Milan forward Ivan Perisic’s header which clinically found the bottom corner, but I would have loved to have seen us be brave and really test the Croatia defence when the game was still at 1-1.
In fairness to Clarke, if John McGinn had stuck his excellent chance at the back post away when the scores were level, it could have been a totally different story.
The same goes for the opening game against the Czech Republic, when skipper Andy Robertson was played through on goal but could only fire meekly straight at the goalkeeper.
Creating chances hasn’t been our problem at this tournament – taking them has been. And that’s not just on strikers Lyndon Dykes and Che Adams.
That’s exactly why I think calls for Clarke’s head to roll are way off the mark.
While I was disappointed with some of the decisions he made regarding personnel, especially playing just one striker against the Czechs in the first half of our crucial opener, his side still created plenty of opportunities – enough to win all three games.
Unfortunately, the lack of a proven, clinical goalscorer came back to cost us dearly.
Now Clarke doesn’t have the luxury to go out and buy a prolific forward, but if we take anything from this experience it’s that our players need to learn to take their chances when they come.
England only scored one more goal than us in the group stage, but picked up seven points. It’s all about making your chances count when they come.
What’s also hugely important is that we don’t allow the two defeats against the Czech Republic and Croatia to sour what was a major turning point for this national team.
Remember, we haven’t qualified for one of these for 23 years. Well, that millstone has been firmly removed from our own and, most importantly, the players’ necks.
All the talk before the match was about how Croatia were an ‘ageing side’.
That was partly true, but they also had Champions League winners and players who had tasted battle in a World Cup final just three years ago.
While we have three or four players who have played on huge stages before, we have nowhere near that level of experience throughout our entire squad.
What we do have now, though, is an entire group of players who have been to a major tournament.
Who have tasted the pressure of the nation’s eyes on them.
Who have tasted the pain of an early exit, and who don’t want to suffer the same again.
This was a learning process. And it wasn’t Israel or Serbia who were growing as a national team in our place – finally it was us.
As long as Clarke and his players have drank every drop of their Euro 2020 experience in, there’s no reason to not dare to dream of another major appearance at the World Cup in Qatar next year.
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