‘We won 1-1’.
So went the chant on the way out of my first Scotland game, a draw at home to Germany on 7th June 2003. Even at 11 years old, I appreciated the sense of self-awareness inherent in the song that quickly echoed around the crowd as we spilled out of Hampden Park.
Getting a draw against Germany felt like victory for a team like Scotland. This was a Germany team that featured seven players who had contested the 2002 World Cup final with Brazil the previous summer, playing a Scotland team in the early days of the Berti Vogts era, where our central defensive pairing was Steven Pressley and Andy Webster, where our main striker was Stevie Crawford of Dunfermline.
The gulf in class was huge, and obvious even to the naïve, idealistic eyes of my brothers and I. They were so much better than us. Our players ranged from poor to modest to decent-but-old and we had a manager who never quite got the best out of those admittedly meagre resources.
You’re damn right we won 1-1.
Since that impossibly sunny day in the summer of 2003, I’ve seen Scotland managers come and go; Vogts begat Smith, Smith begat Mcleish, Mcleish begat Burley and Levein, whose reign culminated in growing demands for Gordon Strachan, then it was Mcleish again and, at time of writing at least, Steve Clarke.
That game against Germany was but my first taste of life as a Tartan Army conscript. Back then, my Dad would queue in Safeway for tickets to the games, often with the aid of an uncle or our family friend Neil. He’d get tickets for all of us, even letting us take a friend game by game. Truly, only his willingness to take us to games, to stand in those queues, to travel from Safeway to Safeway in search of the tickets, turned me into the committed Footsoldier I am today.
So he gets the credit. Or perhaps that should be the blame.
Kenny Miller and Colin Cameron, anawl, I suppose. What a bit of quick thinking that was. Tidy wee finish, too.
I remember the sights, the smells, the pre-match build up. The train to Mount Florida, the atmosphere building as we walked down to Hampden. The way the sound would swirl and weave and wind up and around the buildings as we made our way down to the stadium, sat like a bowl embedded, at an awkward angle, in the ground.
I remember for a while Scotland seemed to be winning every game we went to (even the ones we drew). I remember Neil telling us to enjoy our unbeaten run whilst it lasted, knowing it wouldn’t remain as such forever, or even for long.
(Credit to Scott Wylie)
I remember his amusement when I declared frustration with a 6-0 win over the Faroe Islands at Parkhead (Robbie Williams was small, and round, and stole our fucking ground, so the chant went).
I felt that, after a first half of five goals, only getting one in the second 45 was short-change.
Of course I didn’t comprehend that Scotland hasn’t scored six goals in a game since the 1980s (1984, a 6-1 win over Yugoslavia). Of course I didn’t comprehend that such wins were more exceptional than normal.
I remember him telling me to expect more downs than ups, but to try to keep supporting Scotland in spite of their tendency to put an ache in the heart. I remember swearing I would, come what may. No matter what.
(Credit to Gary Gary Coombes)
I remember him reminding me of this oath after the crushing defeat by The Netherlands in 2003, and again after the late, stomach-puncturing loss to Italy in 2007. I recall the recent reminders after Scotland were ashamed in Astana, battered by Belgium and Routed in Russia.
I’ve not gone back on my word as yet, and I don’t suppose I ever will.
I remember the excitement of being old enough to go sans parental supervision, and the even more thrilling option of spending the build up with a pint of beer, rather than a tin of Bru. Of going with friends with tickets I had sourced, sat at a computer rather than stood in a Safeway queue. Even getting my Dad tickets from time to time, returning the favour (or should that be getting my own back?)
Then there was that next inevitable step, boarding a plane to Portugal for an adventure in the Algarve. Seeing Scotland win 6-0 (for the second time) in another failed campaign couldn’t take the shine entirely off of an experience I’ll never forget, a progression in my Scotland supporting that I’ve never looked back from and will likely never escape; an addiction that took hold in those bars in Faro Old Town and the Albufeira strip.
What now, then? After just about managing to pip Israel to the post in the Nations League fight to secure a back-door EURO 2020 Playoff, we will, eventually, take a crack at getting ourselves back to a major tournament. You see, I was but months old during Euro 92, 4 years old during Euro 96 and a 6 year old during France ’98. My earliest Scotland memories include a foggy vision of McCoist scoring against Switzerland and, more clearly, of watching as we opened the World Cup against the Glamour and glitz of Brazil from our family holiday in Newquay.
We sat in that fisherman’s cottage, one which stunk of the sea in a way that clung to every nook and cranny, kitted out with In Bru smuggled over the border from home. As young as we were, though, we were on a one drink limit. Brazil took the lead and, to dampen down our demands for more ginger nectar, our mother told us we could have more if Scotland scored. Odds were stacked against the juice being further imbibed but, alas for our poor wee maw, Cesar Sampaio held back Kevin Gallagher, Scotland got the penalty and John Collins tucked it away. So the juice did flow afterall, at least until Tom Boyd's unfortunate late own goal. At the time I didn't know why my Dad needed a 'wee hawf' at full time.
I have since come to understand that sentiment all too well.
Memories, and distant ones at that. The Childhood variety. What, though, stands in the way of Scotland appearing in a finals for the first time in my adult life?
First things first, a win or bust game against Israel. Again. Possibly in October 2020, but it might well end up being early 2021. Win that and we face a trip to Norway or Serbia for a final.
Steve Clarke has gotten us playing well in fits and starts, but we’ve also surrendered quite silly goals to Cyprus (three of them) and taken severe beatings from Russia and Belgium. That being said, the wins over Cyprus were games I don’t see us winning under the previous regime, suggesting Clarke had at least gotten some steel and belief into the squad, a bit of tooth grit and a few rolled -up sleeves. That ought to stand us in good stead.
We’ve lost twice to Belgium and twice to Russia on his watch thus far, winning two matches against Cyprus and home games against San Marino and Kazakhstan. It’s too early to judge, but factually he has not yet turned us into a winning side. Yet I’m far more confident of beating Israel under Clarke than I was under Mcleish, whose Scotland managed it by the thinnest teeth skin one could imagine.
(Credit to Gary Gary Coombes)
Norway or Serbia would be a tougher test even at Hampden, so there is a particularly daunting air about the prospect of facing them away form home. That being said, the home fan advantage could well be null and void for both the away final and even more worryingly the Hampden Semi. On that front, we’ll simply have to wait and see.
I’m longing for the circumstances to once again allow me to dig out the dark blue and go to Hampden. I’m especially keen for Europe to be fit and able to accommodate thousands of us to travel. I was looking forward to Prague and Bratislava in the autumn. I was looking forward to the World Cup qualifying draw.
I am still looking forward to more memories like those I have made in Cyprus, in Brussels, in San Marino. In Albania. In Slovenia, In London, in Malta. And that first addictive away hit, in Faro.
So, 17 years of attending games, and what have I learned?
Heroic failure hurts worse than the regular kind.
Drunken sing songs are the best kind to take part in and the worst kind to listen to.
Hope is more honourable than expectation.
Most people are kind and friendly, wherever you travel. The poorer the kinder, in my experience. Bampots are the exception, not the rule.
Albanians genuinely had no idea what a Kilt was (this was fixed, presumably for good).
Glasgow City Centre has a bizarre and unique hatred of the Tartan Army.
Supporters buses to the games can be the best part of the whole trip.
Women can and should be encouraged to go to games.
The Swedish Tartan Army is a genuine thing and not a wind up.
Cyprus is gorgeous and San Marino is essentially an Italian Hill.
I'm not the only Airdrie supporter who follows Scotland, afterall.
0-3 can be the worst result in history AND a decent showing worthy of applause at the end, depending on the opponent.
There's a supermarket inside New Wembley. And Escalators.
Super Bock is the lager of the gods.
Some folk think 'Doe a Deer' is a defeatist song and the reason we aren't getting to finals.
Hampden, when full and rocking, is something to behold.
Some unscrupulous stadiums will chance their arm and charge 2 Euro for a pint of alcohol free beer, which they cunningly advertise as just beer.
'We're gonnae deep fry yer X' is a guaranteed crowd pleaser.
Going to Away Games with the Tartan Army should be brought in as a distinctly Scottish version of National Service, teaching as it does humility and how to take defeat, how not to take oneself too seriously and a reason to see parts of the world you otherwise never would.
(That man Gary Coombes again)
Above all, though, I've learned that, win, lose, or draw, it will be in the pursuit not of glory but of memories that I will carry on following Scotland. Follow them at home and follow them abroad. Follow them into Eastern Europe and holiday destinations both. For truly these are memories that will last a lifetime, memories made with friends old and new, family by blood and by choice, brothers and sisters in arms.
More than I can ever express, I look forward to recapturing that impossible feeling, from that impossibly sunny day in the summer of 2003, when We Won 1-1.