It’s been another sobering four days for Scottish football fans – the kind of sobering experience, ironically enough, likely to drive vast swathes of the nation to drink. Ignominious defeats against Wales and Serbia finally finished off an abortive World Cup qualification campaign that started badly and got worse.
Scotland is currently in the middle of its worst ever run of results in competitive international football, sitting below a variety of failed states and far flung kingdoms in the FIFA World Rankings (my own favourites are Libya and Sierra Leone). Worst still, there doesn’t seem to be any hope on the horizon. We are, as it stands, the only European side to be officially knocked out of the World Cup – before San Marino, Andorra and so on. The vicious cycle of defeat, despondency and demotion makes the chances of recovery in this generation remote.
Watching (or rather enduring) the two games these past few days, my mind was cast back to a night in Paris in 2007. Like 25,000 other Scots, I was in the Parc des Princes when Scotland beat France 1-0, putting the seal on a double over the French that almost took us to the 2008 European Championships. The performance in Paris shouldn’t be romanticised. It was industrious rather than artistic, more efficient than stylish; a showcase of the ugly side of football, albeit wonderfully annotated by McFadden’s glorious 40 yard strike.
The side that night was an interesting mix. It had its share of old timers, like David Weir and Graham Alexander, who had played at a high level their whole career, but it was by no means an ‘old’ side. More importantly, the stand-out performers were mainly in their early to mid-twenties and should now be at their peak, ready to take Scotland to a major championship finals for the first time since France ‘98. But that team no longer exists: its component parts have disappeared amidst a series of failed transfers, stalled careers and injury nightmares. Rather than being the start of a bright new dawn for these players, Paris was the high water mark.
Let’s go through the list. Craig Gordon, probably the outstanding young goalkeeper in European football at the time, transferred to Sunderland for £9 million and started brightly, but then descended into a blackly comic series of injuries that have left him struggling to walk never mind keep goal. Alan Hutton was a marauding presence during throughout the campaign, a player full of pace and power who seemed capable of dominating games from the full-back position. But his move from Rangers to Tottenham was a disaster, beset by lack of first-team action and various disputes with his manager. After a succession of underwhelming loan moves, he now lives out a semi-retirement in the Balearic Islands with La Liga relegation hopefuls Real Mallorca. He also occasionally shows up for Scotland matches but his abject performances only serve to remind you of what a promising player he was.
Then there was the beating heart of the Paris team: Darren Fletcher and Scott Brown. The former is on the verge of retirement after attempting and failing to overcome a chronic stomach illness. The latter has grown into an excellent Celtic captain, but he too is battling to save his career from a severe injury. Neither looks capable of sustaining a career for club and country.
And what about the main man, McFadden? 24 on the night, McFadden has had a sadly typical career for his generation of Scottish players. Long periods of inaction and intermittent first-team appearances were the norm when he played in England, first with Everton and then with Birmingham. Injuring his cruciate ligaments in 2008, he never recovered the capacity for twisting and manoeuvring his body that made him such a danger to the French. His recent return to former club Motherwell might help him get some of the old magic back, but the best years of his career were spent on the treatment table.
There is no guarantee that we would be better off if we had managed to keep that team together. The problems in Scottish football are structural – more than a few twisted knees and damaged ligaments. But we can’t ignore the pattern: promising Scottish players lured away from our domestic leagues to the bright lights and filthy lucre of the EPL, only to find themselves warming the bench or having their bodies broken by the stress of the game. Perhaps they were just ‘found out’ and their collective has-been status better reflects their real ability. Maybe Paris was a fluke.
The loss to Serbia will no doubt provoke yet another round of back-to-basics moralising about the “weans today”, too interested in their PlayStations, too cosseted to get their knees skinned on a red ash pitch. The demographic determinists will cite the size of our population – while ignoring the fact that Montenegro, with a population smaller than Greater Glasgow, currently tops England’s group. But before we become seduced by another fairytale about restructuring along Spanish or Dutch lines, we should think about what happened to the one really exciting team we have had in the last 15 years. If we can’t figure out why that team promised so much and delivered so little, it won’t matter how many more talented players we produce, because the same thing will happen all over again.