Well, it could hardly have been any tougher. Scotland
will face Holland in the play-offs for a place in the
2004 European Championships. Along with Turkey the
Dutch have the best qualifying record of the ten countries in the
play-offs. They drew at home with group winners the Czech Republic
and were beaten in Prague. Those games aside they won every
other match in their group both home and away. In what was supposedly
their toughest test outside the Czechs they thrashed Austria
3-0 in Vienna.
And we know all about the quality of their players. The goalscoring
capabilities of Patrick Kluivert and Ruud Van Nistelrooy
won't need to be explained to Scots fans. Nor will former Old Firm
favourites Pierre Van Hooijdonk and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst
be strangers either. The mercurial Marc Overmars is still
capable of winning a game on his own and in defence Edwin Van
Der Sar, Michael Reiziger and Jaap Stam are all thoroughbreds.
The midfield oozes class in the shape of Clarence Seedorf, Edgar
Davids and Philip Cocu. And if for some reason their
strikers are misfiring they can always call on Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink
and Roy Makaay as reinforcements.
That is an indication of the task facing Scotland. Men like
Hasselbaink and Makaay - last transfers coming to over £28
million - aren't guaranteed a place in the starting line-up.
So should we just give up? Settle for the delights of watching some
of the world's best players on show at Hampden and an enjoyable
few days in Amsterdam for the Tartan Army?
Not at all. While accepting that the Dutch will be heavy favourites
to win the tie they are not supermen. They do have weaknesses as
their failure to defeat the Czechs shows. And squad unity has never
been a strong point. Their tendency to split into cliques based
on club, country and ethnicity has been their undoing in the past.
Nor is their coach - Dick Advocaat - exactly renowned for
his man management.
It is possible that the Dutch may treat us lightly. We know Advocaat
is scarcely the biggest fan of Scottish football. But there is one
way he could repay the generous hospitality extended to him during
his time in charge of Rangers. If he ever felt that he owed Scotland
anything at all now would be a good time for him to do us a favour.
AND PICK BERT KONTERMAN IN HIS STARTING ELEVEN
Of course the fact that we are in the play-offs in the first place
is good news. For a long time in the match against Lithuania
it looked like we would miss out. Darren Fletcher's peach
of a goal less than five minutes after coming on as a substitute
ensured runners-up spot in the group. And before Hampden's biggest
crowd since 1990 as well. Proof, if it were needed, that the revival
of Scottish international football is under way irrespective of
the result against the Dutch.
We appear to have bottomed out. If we fail to make it all the way
to Portugal then we will have done no worse than in 2000 and better
than in the World Cup qualifying campaign of 2002. Yes, it was a
weak group. Yes, we would have secured second place with ease had
we taken all three points in the Faeroes. But can anyone be in any
doubt anymore that we are beginning to claw our way back to respectability?
That Vogts demonstrates a flair in selection hitherto unseen?
Would Craig Brown or Andy Roxburgh have played three up front in
Germany? Would either of these coaches thrown on Fletcher as a sub
or given James McFadden a place in the starting eleven? Doubtful
to say the least.
Berti Vogts is undertaking a root and branch clearout of old ideas
and attitudes. It will take time for his plans to come to fruition.
At least two decades of ossification can't be changed inside a couple
of years. That is why it was wrong for elements of the press to
demand Vogts' head after a series of poor results in friendlies.
The purpose of friendlies is to look at players, assess newcomers,
try out tactics. The only results that matter are in competition.
Something that the previous regime - with its emphasis on good results
in games the opposition didn't give a damn about - failed to recognise.
One of Berti's best decisions was to put Rainer Bonhof in
charge of the under-21s. They won their section, though they
did so in 'traditional' heart-stopping Scottish style. Two
down at home to Lithuania with eleven minutes to play they somehow
contrived a 3-2 victory. And again it was a double substitution
that did the trick. Tam McManus supplied the ammunition and
Stephen Hughes fired home the goals that meant the young
Scots finished ahead of Germany.
They too face a play-off - against Croatia - if they are
to reach the eight-team Finals. But the incentive to do so is great
as the SFA have decided to bid for the tournament. That would be
a massive shot in the arm for the game in Scotland if the cream
of European youth performed in front of Scottish crowds prior to
the main tournament in Portugal.
Whatever the outcome for both seniors and under-21s there is a new
optimism in our game. For the first time in a long while we can
make this proclamation without fear of being laughed at:
THIS IS AN EXCITING TIME FOR SCOTTISH FOOTBALL.