Date: 13th November 2020
By Ben Ramage, Reach Plc sports journalist and SFSA writer
Ryan Christie’s tears said more in his post-match interview than words ever could.
The goalscorer’s outpouring of joy and relief was mirrored in living rooms across the country, as Scotland and her supporters came to terms with the fact they’d actually done it.
They’d finally achieved what seven managers and countless talented players couldn’t quite get over the line before them.
Scotland had, at long, long last, qualified for a major tournament once again.
22 years of hurt, humiliation and disappointment were washed away as David Marshall tipped Aleksandar Mitrovic’s penalty round the post and the nation erupted.
Yes, coronavirus was keeping us separate. But we all experienced that spine-tingling, earth-shattering moment together in spirit.
Memories of miserable away trips to Georgia, gone. Nightmares of 4-6-0 formations, forgotten. The scars of Italian and Polish last minute goals, healed.
The players and Steve Clarke changed the narrative from the side who always lose when it counts, to the boys who could not be stopped.
The Clarke train has been on track for Euro 2020 since the miserable 4-0 defeat to Russia. The former Killie manager said his players drew a line under years of pain at that moment, and boy have they delivered the goods.
Not only that, but in some style too. This wasn’t a backs-to-the-wall, dig in and hope for a miracle performance.
This was dominant, front foot, pressing, determined football. We went to Belgrade and took the game to Serbia, a team ranked 30 in the FIFA rankings, some 15 places above us.
There was so much talk in the build up to the match about the quality and experience the hosts had, particularly in the midfield.
But it was Callum McGregor, Ryan Jack and John McGinn who ran the show in front of the empty stands.
Lyndon Dykes was a colossus up front. Mitrovic was supposed to be the danger man, but it was the Aussie-turned-Scottie who was giving the Serbian defence absolute nightmares with his hold-up play, his link-up passing and his positive energy.
The only concern was for all our dominance, we still weren’t ahead on the scoreboard at half-time. That quickly changed after the break as Christie produced a piece of magic McFadden and even Messi would have been proud of.
Collecting a clever pass from McGregor, he danced his way into space on the edge of the box before delivering a sublime strike past Predrag Rajkovic and in off the inside of the post.
It was no more than Scotland deserved, and even when the Serbs started to throw the kitchen sink at the visitors Steve Clarke’s men refused to budge.
This was all going too well, right? There was no way the qualification we craved was going to be achieved this smoothly, and sure enough one lapse of concentration in defence cost us an equaliser with just two minutes to play.
A brilliant Luka Jovic header after he escaped Scott McTominay from a corner, but totally undeserved over the course of the previous 90 minutes.
That late an equaliser must have stung the players to their very core. They must surely have started to doubt themselves and wonder if this would just be another case of so near and yet so far for Scotland.
But no. The players somehow managed to rally themselves and battle bravely on until penalties. They fought for every ball and swatted away every cross, with Declan Gallagher again putting in a superb performance under incredible pressure.
People say that penalties are a lottery. But unfortunately you can’t practise winning the lottery, it’s totally up to chance.
To say a shootout is a lottery gives no credit to the countless hours the takers have spent on honing their technique. The research that the backroom staff put in to the Serbian spot takers. David Marshall’s innate ability to sense which way a player is shaping to shoot honed from hundreds of matches.
Much like the Israel game before it, the penalty takers were sublime. Each taker had a story behind it, from Leigh Griffiths and his battle back from mental health problems to Oli McBurnie proving his worth to the Tartan Army by keeping his cool when it mattered the most.
Each goal was a hammer blow to the Serbs and when Mitrovic stepped up to take the last, crucial penalty I genuinely believed he would miss it. When a striker hides until the last kick, you always get the feeling that they really hoped it would all be done and dusted by the time it got to their turn.
And it certainly was done and dusted after Marshall sprang to the bottom corner and with one wonderful save swept the Tartan Army back to the major tournament they’ve been crying out for over the last two decades.
There was plenty of crying going on at full-time. Thousands of fans, myself included, felt the wondrous combination of joy and relief that coursed through Christie’s veins as he spoke back home to the nation.
He’s a hero now. So is Clarke, so is every single player who has pulled on the jersey over the course of this campaign that has ended so perfectly.
Darren Fletcher and James McFadden were jumping for joy when progression was sealed, and it was incredible to see just how much it means to them to see a group of players achieve what they strived to for all these years.
No bitterness, just unbridled happiness that a group had finally managed to shake off the shackles and do what has for the last 22 years been desperately out of reach.
Our players famously sang we have a dream ahead of the World Cup in Spain in 1982.
The Tartan Army have been singing this song ever since, and for once it was just magical that in bonnie Scotland, dreams can come true.
Wembley, we’ll be seeing you.
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