Scotland v Serbia was potentially the tensest 120-odd minutes this country has ever experienced. Up and down the nation, people tuned in to watch the men’s national team as, for the first time in 22 years, we had a sniff of qualifying for a competition. The team is often described as experts in ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory’ and for a while last night it looked like that would be the case once more.
Scotland went into last night’s game on an unbeaten streak of eight games, the first time that had happened since 1988, but Serbia are no pushovers. In the international rankings they are placed 30th, with Scotland in 45th, though you wouldn’t know the fifteen-place gap from watching Thursday night’s game.
The Scottish squad dominated the first half. The Serbian defence was nothing to write home about, crumbling as soon as the ball got anywhere near them. With Lyndon Dykes leading the charge for the Scottish side, the best they could do was just to catch him up. The Australian-born striker caused mayhem for the Serbian defence and in doing so created openings for John McGinn and Ryan Christie to take multiple shots at the goal. With each attempt and each subsequent close miss, there was a collective groan across the country.
45 minutes came and went with no goals scored but the powerful display from our boys meant we went into the second-half hopeful that we might end our two-decade long streak of bad luck. And what a second-half it was.
Only five minutes after the break, just following a tantalisingly close miss from Robertson, we were finally treated to a stunning goal from Christie. The ball spent a never-ending 20 seconds bouncing around the Serbian defence until he found an opening and managed to slide the ball past the keeper and nudge it in off the post.
We spent the next 40 minutes delaying the game as much as possible, trying desperately to hold onto the lead. A few notable attempts for a follow-up goal were to no avail. 80 minutes came and went safely; 85, 86, 87, 88, the Serbs pushing ever more intently while we all watched through our fingers. Then, at 89:34 in the midst of a flurry of corners, a goal from Luka Jovic equalised the game, that old adage seemingly coming true once more.
Extra-time was required but the Scottish side began to falter, and substituting Christie and McGinn started to look like a poor decision. The match turned into yet another half hour of defensive and delaying action. David Marshall, the Scottish keeper, hadn’t had much to do so far but he stepped in decisively a number of times as we rounded off the extra time.
At this point an increasingly nervy country began to pull their remaining hair out as a penalty shootout loomed.
Scotland went first, with Leigh Griffiths (who appeared to have been subbed on for exactly this moment) arrowing his shot on target. The first eight penalties all went in with the teams tied at four all. Kenny McLean stepped up for Scotland’s fifth and final penalty, landing a perfect shot. It was all down to Marshall. If he could stop this next penalty, we would qualify for our first international tournament in 22 years.
Aleksandr Mitrovic stepped up and the nation held its breath. My mum watched through her fingers. Marshall leapt to the ground and batted the ball away. In an instant Marshall, Dykes, Christie and the entire squad became national heroes. They achieved what many of us had accepted would simply never happen. In that instant our national team earned the love of the nation and to repurpose that old line from Trainspotting – ‘it’s great being Scottish’.
Scotland could not have played a more tense, tighter, more stressful game if they tried but we made it though.
‘Mon the Euros!
Image: Анна Джалалян via Creative Commons