“Doe, a deer, a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun!” This was the battle cry of the Tartan Army for a two-year stint back in the mid-2000’s as Scotland locked horns with some of Europe’s best in a bid to qualify for Euro 2008. This might sound like an odd choice, certainly one of the less aggressive chants that the supporters have sung, though it certainly charmed their opponents home and away as Scotland made their case to appear in the European Championships in Austria and Switzerland. The song was a homage to the Sound of Music song, given the location of the finals. As a Scotland fan who has seen some cataclysmic qualifying campaigns during my life, this was certainly one of the more memorable ones. Scotland were drawn in Group B with BOTH World Cup 2006 finalists, Italy and France, and played out a campaign that really epitomised Scottish sport, the ultimate glorious failure. Realistically, the only way Scottish fans were going to get any joy out of the campaign was with some well thought out some BTTS tips and that was under the assumption Scotland would score.
Scotland got off to an absolute flyer in their group, a home tie against the Faroe Islands, who had lost their opening fixture to Georgia 6-0 in August – the only fixture of the group to be played then. Walter Smith began the campaign in charge of Scotland and spurred his team on to a scintillating first half that saw the home side notch five goals.
Scotland scored two goals in the opening 10 minutes. Darren Fletcher slid towards the back post to convert a low cross by Kenny Miller to open the scoring, before James McFadden curled home a sweet strike, once again stemming from a Miller pass, to seal the Scots the points early on. Ill-discipline then cost the Faroe Islands even more so as they let in two penalties before the half-hour mark. Óli Johannesen toppled James McFadden, allowing Kris Boyd the chance to open his account for the campaign, while an Atli Danielsen handball six minutes later allowed for Kenny Miller to score from the spot.
Boyd made it 5-0 before the break which meant Scotland could play a very casual possession-based game in the second half. Garry O’Connor, a powerful striker in his prime
before summing to a drug addiction some years later, added a 6th goal to seal the win. A win was expected against such lowly opposition, but to do so in such emphatic style was a magnificent start to the campaign and set the feel-good factor in Scotland. Scotland were top of the table, ahead of France on goal difference.
After the emphatic win at Celtic Park, a trip to Lithuania was next, some four days later. The 6-0 festival-like game felt like a distant memory as Scotland had to dig deep to get over the line in Kaunas. Lithuania would have been predicted as an easy game going into the process, but their opening day draw with World Cup champions Italy was a slightly daunting process.
Despite the slight worry over the eastern-European side’s previous result and the fact that Scotland were away from home, they dominated the opening half, though the breakthrough alluded them. Former Dundee United cup winning defender Christian Dailly played his part at both ends of the pitch. He cleared a Lithuanian effort off his own goalline in the first half, then nodded in a Gary Naysmith corner a minute into the second half to open the scoring. Kenny Miller collected a yellow card ruling him out of the next match against France, though this didn’t stop him thundering in a terrific volley to double the Scottish lead with half an hour to play. Darius Miceika scored a wonderful overhead kick late in the second half to give the hosts hope, but the game finished 2-1 to Scotland. The Scots were in full voice as they continued to top the table, while Lithuania were left to rue their missed chances. Italy lost to France, giving Scotland some breathing room in the top two.
Next up was the big one. Scotland hosted France at Hampden Park, Glasgow. Each side had played two – won two. This was Scotland’s opportunity. As the bagpipes blared out and the smoke from the fireworks dissipated, both sets of players were hyped and ready to do battle.
Scotland defended deeply against Les Bleus and conceded twice, firstly from a Patrick Vieira header, then from a David Trezeguet overhead kick. Much to the dismay of the travelling French support, the linesman flagged both efforts offside. Scotland absorbed wave after wave of French pressure, creating very little themselves. Midway through the second half, their fortunes changed. Paul Hartley whipped in a wicked corner which outfoxed the French defence. Gary Caldwell lost his marker as the ball travelled and fell to the centre back perfectly for him to stab it under Gregory Coupet in the goal. France kept pushing for an equaliser, but the Scottish defence held strong, roared on by an electric Hampden crowd. When the referee blew for full time the Scots were still on top of the group, though goal difference was no longer the decisive factor; they were three points clear.
Four days after their monumental win over France, the Scottish bubble burst. In what turned out to be manager Walter Smiths last competitive fixture as Scotland boss his side lost 2-0 to World Cup 2006 quarter-finalists Ukraine. The Tartan Army travelled to the intimidating cauldron of Dynamo Kiev’s stadium where 55,000 Ukrainians cheered on their side to a powerful win. After relentless Ukrainian pressure, Olexandr Kucher took advantage of some calamitous Scottish defending from a free kick to hit his shot under Craig Gordon to put his side ahead.
Discipline got the better of Scotland late on. Stephen “Elvis” Pressley saw red with five minutes to go. Andriy Shevchenko was running in on goal, leaving Pressley to make the decision to take one for the team. He saved a goal and meant that Scotland, despite being outplayed for the whole game, had a chance to salvage a draw. This chance was squandered, however, when Robbie Nielson gave away a penalty deep into stoppage time. Shevchenko calmly converted the penalty to seal the three points. Scotland were top of the group on goal difference, though wins for France and Italy had Scotland looking over their shoulder with angst.
Despite losing manager Walter Smith in the five and a half months between qualifiers, there was still a great deal of optimism from Scotland fans as they welcomed Georgia to Hampden. The eastern-European side had lost every game since their opening day demolition of the Faroe’s and a big win was predicted to get the Scot’s campaign back on track. A bullet header from Kris Boyd 11 minutes in got Hampden bouncing, though the majority of the 50,000 crowd were silenced shortly before half time as Shota Arveladze benefited from some static defending to head his side back on level terms.
The second half was a frustrating affair, Georgia played against Scotland like Scotland did against France – they sat in deep and defended like their lives depended on it. With the minutes ticking down it looked like Alex McLeish was destined to draw his opening games against the minnows. With a minute left of the allotted 90, Scotland got a break. A game of head tennis ensued between the Scottish offence and Georgian defence, with the ball finally breaking to Craig Beattie. The cumbersome striker bundled the ball past the goalkeeper and sent Hampden into a frenzy. The goal had been a long time coming, though you could be excused for thinking it might not materialise. The scoreline may not have been what the fans were hoping for, but the three points were desperately needed.
Scotland travelled to Bari to take on World Champions Italy in a hugely important match in Group B. While Italy were clear favourites, Scotland were still optimistic, with a number of sides having shown the World Cup winners up in the previous few months. Italy were a vulnerable team under Roberto Donadoni, though they didn’t show it that evening. Luca Toni was an absolute force as he spearheaded the Italian attack. He won a free kick, then, from the resulting Massimo Oddo set piece, powered a header past Craig Gordon. Scotland kept chipping away, but the gap in quality grew wider and wider as the game went on. With 20 minutes to go, substitute Shaun Maloney tried to overplay in the middle of the field, gifting possession to the Italians who scored again, courtesy of a fine Luca Toni header.
Scotland topped the group, but their lead wasn’t to last long. Scotland had played six games, while France and Ukraine, each on 12 points, the same as Scotland, had only played five. Italy too had only played five matches, they sat on 10 points and faced the Faroe Islands next. Scotland had played every team once and sat top of the table, though by the time the three teams around them completed their fixtures, the Tartan Army had dropped down to 4th in the group. Alex McLeish had a real job on his hands if he wanted to keep the pace with the rest of the pack.