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After a stunning opening half of their Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, Scotland were finding their feet under new manager Alex McLeish. In his first two competitive fixtures, he oversaw Scotland securing a hard-fought victory over Georgia before being outclassed by World Champions Italy in Bari. They had led the group during the Walter Smith period of qualifying, though the group was so tight that by the halfway mark, the Scots had slipped to fourth. Scotland were not far off the pace, however, and knew that qualification for their first tournament in a decade was still very much in their capabilities.

Scotland set about the second half of their qualifying campaign with an away trip to the Faroe Islands. It would certainly be a tough ask to replicate the 6-0 demolition job that they did over their opposition, but McLeish ensured his side got the job done. This match had a different air about it to the home tie. While Hampden was a packed 52,000 stadium for the game, Faroe Islands drew a crowd of around 4,000, their stadium so close to the water that a high clearance would have seen the ball fly out of the stadium and drop into the sea.

It was a very comfortable game for the Scots who coasted to an easy 2-0 victory. Young Celtic winger Shaun Maloney scored the game’s first goal on the half-hour mark, whipping in a brilliant free-kick which left the Faroe Island goalkeeper rooted to the spot. The second was scored by Garry O’Connor. His header was saved by Jákup Mikkelsen though the keeper could do nothing to stop the Hibernian striker from tapping in the rebound. This result moved Scotland up to third place. A home tie against Lithuania was next up, though this wouldn’t be until September.

Just like the Georgia game at the start of the year, Scotland would win, but they would have a hard time doing so. Kris Boyd opened the scoring for the Tartan Army on a sunny September afternoon, taking advantage of a quick Darren Fletcher free-kick to head to put the team ahead. A tragic dive from Saulius Mikoliūnas conned the Slovakian referee into giving a penalty shortly after an hour of play. Tomas Danilevičius struck the penalty decisively and Lithuania were back on level terms.

With time running down the game had a feeling about it that maybe Scotland weren’t going to catch a break; that all their pressure, all their good attacking play would be wiped out by a cheap dive. Well with just over 10 minutes to play, Shaun Maloney gathered a Fletcher short free-kick and whipped the ball into the box. Celtic defender Stephen McManus used his knee to bundle the ball into the back of the net. This wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing goal of the campaign, but it was damn effective! Just five minutes later and it was 3-1 to Scotland. James McFadden carried off a pass from Kris Boyd, ran sideways and then scooped the ball into the back of the net from 25 yards. It was a tough encounter, but it was a vital win. Italy and France drew 0-0, allowing Scotland to claim second place in the group with four games to go. Could it be? Could qualification be on the cards?

There was a strong feel-good factor around Scotland following the Lithuania win. A trip to Paris was next though, and even the most optimistic of Scotland fans would have struggled to have imagined the result that occurred in Paris on 12 September 2008. Scotland elected to play only one striker for this game, with James McFadden leading the line. France had a talented and energetic midfield of Claude Makelele, Patrick Vieira, Florent Malouda and Franck Ribéry. McLeish played five in the middle of the park to quash this threat.

It was a cagey match. France had more of the ball, though struggled to create many genuine chances. Craig Gordon was on hand to palm away efforts from Malouda, Ribéry and Diarra. The game sparked into life midway through the second half via a moment of magic from James McFadden. Craig Gordon’s goal kick soared through the air and dropped to McFadden, the furthest Scot forward, deep in French territory. He controlled the long pass, turned towards goal and leathered the ball from 30 yards out. The football spun in the air, thundering past Mickaël Landreau in the French goal and nestling into the back of
the net. It was a glorious goal worthy of winning any match.

This was a crucial win for Scotland, they had beaten France home and away, inflicting the nation’s first losses since ’99 in the process, and had recovered from setbacks in Eastern Europe to now sit atop the group once more, nine games in. The next international break was a month away, in October 2007. Ukraine were up next, and Scotland had vengeance on their minds. The following game was away to Georgia – an absolute must-win match…

Kenny Miller put Scotland in dreamland early on. A Lee McCulloch free kick was won by Miller at the front post whose header beat the Ukrainian Olexandr Shovkovskiy in goal after only four minutes. Six minutes later and McCulloch turned from provider to scorer himself. A clever Barry Ferguson free-kick found McCulloch totally free on the corner of the penalty
box. The midfielder had ample time to control the ball on his chest before rifling a shot into the next to put Scotland 2-0 up.

The Tartan Army were in full sung now, “doe, a deer” was blaring out around the stadium, until some powerful play from national hero Andriy Shevchenko halved the deficit 24 minutes in. Ukraine felt that they should have been awarded a penalty late in the first half, though the referee waving play on was perhaps the break that the Scot’s needed after the Saulius Mikoliūnas dive a few months previously. With 20 minutes left, James McFadden continued his fine international form to black in his country’s third goal of the day to seal the win. Scotland, France and Italy had all played 10 matches. Scotland led the group with 24 points, one ahead of Italy and two over France.

Just a couple of days later Scotland travelled to Tbilisi, Georgia, to face the side second to last in the group. They had only managed to beat the Faroe Islands so far, as well as take a point off Ukraine. They were a hard to beat team, but hardly a threat to a Scottish team on the cusp of something special.

Scotland, who had beaten France home and away, who had overpowered Ukraine and who had dug deep to win out over a tricky Lithuanian side, fell to the hands of Georgia. Slack marking from a corner in the first half cost them, and from a goal behind they struggled to get back into the game. Their task was made even harder halfway through the second half when David Siradze evaded a packed penalty box to hit his first time shot under Craig Gordon. Scotland managed 11 shots against Georgia that evening, but only one was on goal, leaving McLeish’s side with a mountain to climb.

Before a ball was kicked in this qualifying campaign, if anyone in Scotland had been given the opportunity that they were in with a game to go, they’d have bitten your hand off. Scotland were in a group with the World Cup finalists, a World Cup quarterfinalist and a few tricky away venues to travel to, the Faroe Islands was the only easy game. Yet when it came down to their final game, it felt sickening. Scotland shouldn’t have had a chance in this group, yet they now had to beat the World Cup holders to qualify for Euro 2008.

They were second, a point behind France and a point ahead of Italy. Italy crucially had two games to play while the other contenders had only one. A draw was enough for Scotland, but that would involve France having to lose by a shed-load of goals in their final game. Realistically, a Scotland win was the only way they were going to make it to the alpine paradise of Euro 2008. Italy may have had World Cup winners like Andrea Pirlo, Pippo Inzaghi and Luca Toni in their ranks, but for this winner-takes-all match, Scotland had one key thing going their way. They had the Hampden roar.

The national newspapers were calling this the biggest game Scotland had played for decades, while one ran with the headline of Faddiator, superimposing a photo of James McFadden’s face onto the body of Russell Crowe’s character in the movie Gladiator. There were nerves in the stadium pre-kick off, and naturally so. But there was also cautious optimism. Italy had the names that they did in the World Cup, but they were missing something, they hadn’t felt themselves since Roberto Donadoni took over, and Scotland had shown they were capable after wins over France.

A near capacity crowd of over 51,000 fans cheered on the Tartan Army on that sunny November afternoon. These fans were all left in a stunned silence just two minutes in. Luca Toni, so dangerous with his head at an impressive 6”4, bamboozled the Scot’s by connecting with a low cross to convert with his foot. It was criminally slack defending in such a big game. They simply hadn’t woken up. They had beaten France twice in this campaign, but they hadn’t been behind in either game. This was new territory.

Scotland were forced to attack and were causing Italy problems. They felt they should have had a penalty when a shot cannoned off the arm of an Italian defender. The referee indicated it was only to be a corner, a corner which Alan Hutton came agonisingly close to scoring with his head.

Despite the Scottish pressure, Italy found chances themselves. Antonio Di Natale had the ball in the back of the net, though this was flagged offside. He had pounced on a rebound from a Craig Gordon save that opposition keeper Gigi Buffon would have been proud of. Alas for the Udinese striker, he had sprung forward too early.

While Craig Gordon made a wonder-save at one end, Italy worked some magic to keep their goal intact at the other end. David Weir connected with a corner kick, his header beating Gianluigi Buffon. While the fans behind the goal began celebrating, Andrea Pirlo jumped high to block the shot on the goal line and head it to safety. The Italians went into half time a goal up, but Scotland could tell they were far from impenetrable.

Captain Barry Ferguson levelled the score for Scotland halfway through the second half. A free kick took a multitude of deflections and bad bounces before it dropped to Stephen McManus. The defender stuck his shot towards goal, his effort stinging the hands of Buffon with the ball falling to Barry Ferguson, the Rangers midfielder a yard from goal. He didn’t
hesitate and blootered it into the net to make the score 1-1 with 25 minutes to play.

Scotland had a glorious chance to go ahead with 10 minutes left to play. Kenny Miller played a cross low across the box, a box that was filled with more Scots than Italians at the time. His cross fell to McFadden, who had come up trumps for Scotland so often over the past year. The Faddiator was a half yard off the pace and by the time he reached the ball he could only skew it wide of goal. It was a huge let off for the Italians and probably a sign that it wasn’t Scotland’s day.

In one of the biggest robberies in Scottish history, Italy scored the winner in the 91st minute. Italy had played well, but the way in which the goal was scored was criminal. A young Georgio Chiellini barged over Alan Hutton in the corner deep in Scotland’s half. It was a challenge born out of frustration by the Juventus stalwart, a cheap, petty foul. Somehow, quite beyond belief, the Spanish referee blew the foul against Hutton. The resulting free kick was headed in by Christian Panucci to put Italy in the driving seat to win the group, while Scotland crashed out in the cruellest of fashions. The rain, which had been falling all day, was lashing down now, reflecting the mood of every non-Italian in the stadium.

Once the anger subsided, and it certainly took a while to do so, there were a lot of positives to take from the campaign. Scotland got some big results, played with some style and came away from a group with the two previous World Cup finalists feeling aggrieved to have not qualified. While these positives failed to carry on into the next campaign, it was as enjoyable a two years as I can ever remember watching Scotland. Who knows, if only we had learned to defend set pieces then perhaps it was us, and not one of Italy or France, who would have qualified for the Austria-Switzerland European Championships. While Scotland would obviously have not won the tournament – Spain’s tiki-taka was pretty decent if memory serves me well – the Scotland fans would certainly have provided a magnificent atmosphere in the alpine tournament. The 2008 qualification route may not have been successful, but it sure was a fun period to watch the Tartan Army. As glorious
failures go, it was one of our better ones.