When totting up the tally of Scotland’s qualifying agonies over the last two decades an abacus comes in useful.
France 98 ended in a 3-0 defeat to Morocco. And the 22 years, 268 months, 1168 weeks and 8178 days since that balmy night in St Etienne have featured one bout of navel-gazing self-flaggelation after another.
David Seaman’s late save sealed an aggregate defeat to England in the Euro 2000 play-offs.
Scotland consigned 22 years in the international wilderness to the past in reaching Euro 2020
It is 22 years since Scotland’s last tournament appearance at the 1998 World Cup in France – defender Colin Hendry (centre) is pictured trudging off the pitch after a 3-0 loss to Morocco
Goalkeeper Jim Leighton (left) is consoled by back-up stopper Jonathan Gould as Scotland exited the tournament – nobody knew it would start 22 years of hurt for Scottish football
James McFadden’s goal won the first leg of a Euro play-off against Holland in 2004 and angered the Dutch so much they smashed in six goals in Amsterdam.
Euro 2008 was closer than most. But home and away wins over World Champions France ended with defeat in Georgia and *that* Italy free-kick at Hampden.
Euro 2016 was painful. England, Northern Ireland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland go to the ball. Scotland stayed at home.
For the men’s national football team the ten tournaments since France have delivered one clenched fist to the solar plexus after another.
This, then, feels like a mildly glorious thing to write. After another night of spot kick drama in the Red Star Stadium in Belgrade the agony is over. Scotland are going to the Euro 2020 finals. The national team are back in the game.
It wouldn’t be Scotland without pain and anguish along the way. Ryan Christie’s 52nd minute strike took them to within 29 seconds of finishing the job in normal time. When an unmarked Luka Jovic headed Serbia level it felt as if Steve Clarke’s team were finding a whole new way to inflict misery on a long-suffering nation.
Staggering through extra-time, the legs gone, the Scots made it to sudden death.
It needed five perfect penalties to get past Israel in the play-off semi-final. And even after another five perfect penalties from Leigh Griffiths, Callum McGregor, Scott McTominay, Oli McBurnie and Kenny McLean it wasn’t over yet.
Cometh the hour cometh the man. The hero of the hour against Israel goalkeeper David Marshall did earn the freedom of Riddrie when he threw himself low to the left to save the final spot kick from Alexander Mitrovic and spark joyous scenes amongst Scottish players. And, it must be confessed, the small rump of Scottish journalists here to see it.
Goalkeeper David Marshall produced some heroics in the penalty shoot-out against Serbia
Ryan Christie (left) put Scotland ahead against Serbia with a goal in the 52nd minute
Luka Jovic (left) scored a dramatic late equaliser for Serbia as the game went into extra-time
The reward for glory is two games against the Czech Republic and Croatia at Hampden and a trip to Wembley to face England. If scientists haven’t come up with a vaccine by then, there’s every chance the Tartan Army will.
Before this game the list of Uefa nations which hadn’t qualified for a major tournament since 1998 featured Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cyprus, Estonia, Gibraltar, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Macedonia and Scotland.
Score the last name from the list. After a night of brave, valiant, sometimes terrific football the wait is over. Make no mistake, despite the last minute wobble in normal time, Clarke and his team deserved this.
The biggest match-up between Scotland and Serbia since since Andy Murray beat Novak Djokovic to win Wimbledon ended in a comparable level of drama. And an equally memorable outcome. They got there in the end.
The hero of the night, David Marshall didn’t have a first half save to make. Yet Serbia’s first coherent move of the game nearly brought the opening goal. The powerful Mitrovic held the ball up in a congested area with his back to goal and laid it off for Sasa Lukic.
A guided shot from the edge of the fizzed inches past the left hand post. The first heart in mouth moment of the night, no one believed it would be the last. And so it proved.
Inevitably, Serbia began to gain possession. Yet in Lyndon Dykes Steve Clarke has uncovered a gem.
Flicking balls on and making a pest of himself the Australian was part of a three man high press with John McGinn and Ryan Christie. Given the sagging conditions it was a hell of an exercise, but with half an hour played it should have paid off.
But Scotland emerged victorious – a deserved win for manager Steve Clarke and his team
Lyndon Dykes signalled his emergence with another impressive performance for Scotland
A loose ball broke to the Aston Villa man on the left side of the area. Steadying himself McGinn drove a weak old shot low at Rajkovic, the Serbian keeper grabbing at the second attempt as the midfielder scrambled to reach the loose ball.
The half-time whistle blew after another terrific opportunity. A darting burst of acceleration from Kieran Tierney pierced the Serbia defence, the Arsenal defender’s low cut back so inviting those of us perched high in the gods were almost throwing ourselves at the ball. The ball found only a Serbian defender and the chance went begging.
Five minutes into the second half you feared the worst. What a glorious, gilt edged chance Andrew Robertson missed to hand Scotland the lead. Racing onto a long clearance, outstanding hold-up play by Lyndon Dykes teed up a wonderful opportunity for Robertson to race into the area with time and space to shoot.
All he had to do was get over the ball and when the ball sailed over the bar it was a moment of Scots anguish. It was the chance of the match and the question was natural. Would the visitors get many more.
The answer was affirmative and arrived within a minute. On nights like this journalists are expected to maintain the pretence of impartiality. There was none of that high in the gods of the Red Star Stadium when Serbia backed off and backed off, allowing Ryan Christie to smash a low left foot shot beyond the despairing dive off Serbia’s goalkeeper and in off the inside of the post.
Joy unrestrained, shape officially lost, Scotland were a little over half an hour from the Euro 2020 finals. The night was a test of concentration and nerve and cojones as much as ability.
Scotland captain Andy Robertson was overjoyed as his side sealed their place at Euro 2020
Scotland have a match against England – the auld enemy – to look forward to at Euro 2020
There were moments, of course there were. Serbia threw the ball in the area at every turn and propelled the kitchen sink at the final minutes of normal time. Clarke tried to hold out by introducing Oli McBurnie, Kenny McLean and Callum Paterson as subs for the excellent trio of Dykes, Christie and McGinn and it so nearly cost him.
The logic was clear until the roof caved in at the death. The clock was reading 89 minutes and 31 seconds when the Scots chose a catastrophic time to lose concentration. Substitute Luka Jovic was left completely unmarked in the six yard area to head a Mladenovic corner down into the turf, the ball looping over Marshall. It was a moment of gut wrenching anguish. For Serbia a moment of salvation.
Extra-time was a horrible affair. Despite the early promise of long range strikes from Stephen O’Donnell and Ryan Jack it needed an immense save from David Marshall to keep a fizzing shot out as a rejuvenated home side sniffed blood.
Long balls were launched into the Belgrade sky to keep it away from the Scotland area. In contrast with Dykes, McBurnie made nothing stick. In those dying moments players in blue shirts staggered around with rubber legs praying for penalties.
So often the bane of the auld enemy England, sudden death spot kicks have emerged as one of Scotland’s favourite pursuits. Let the rejoicing begin.