Saturday, 8 March 2008

Bringing back the passion

First published in Sons View, 08 March 2008, played on 8 April after two postponements: Dumbarton -v- Forfar Athletic

As Dumbarton seeks to re-build from the basement upwards, with Jim Chapman at the helm and a difficult two-and-a-half seasons giving way to what we hope will be a brighter footballing future for Sons, given time, attention is also moving towards Scotland’s World Cup qualification prospects – with an intriguing preparatory friendly against Croatia scheduled for 26 March.

As it happens, the announcement of what will be new national coach George Burley’s first game in charge came the day after I had booked my next trip to Scotland. Yup, I’d decided to head up on 27th, in time for Sons’ home game against Stranraer and the following week’s away fixture at East Fife. One day out. Ah well.

Croatia are now ranked 10th in the world rankings, so they’ll be a good test of the new regime and the ‘Scottish renaissance’. Added interest is supplied by the fact that the Croats ended England's hopes of progressing to Euro 2008 with a 3-2 victory at Wembley. So a victory for the Scots at Hampden would have added sweetness.

There’s also the outside possibility of a mouth-watering encounter with the Auld Enemy this summer, since both teams are on the sidelines for the European Championships in Austria and Switzerland, but remain keen to keep their passions flowing in advance of the World Cup qualifiers in September and October. Then again, the English FA is said to have put the kibosh on that one. We’ll see.

On paper, Scotland and Norway should be the closest rivals of Holland in the chase for the 2010 finals. So the first two away ties in Macedonia and Iceland will be vital, as well as a good result against the Norwegians at Hampden on 11 October. Getting to South Africa is a realistic possibility and a difficult prospect rolled into one. But the Tartan Army may have to endure yet another dramatic showdown against the Oranje on the final day. Scotland host Netherlands on 9 September 2009.

If all this seems an age away, just you wait. It’ll be upon us frighteningly soon. By which time Dumbarton will be on the up and an ‘England vanquished’ souvenir shirt will have been added to those two French ones. Well, we can dream.

Back in the real world, the appointment of George Burley seems a solid move, whatever the questions about Terry Butcher – whose record in Scotland has been blemished by painful appointments and personal despondency in Sydney and at Brentford (where I watched my first ever live football in season 1966-7).

His managerial career may not have been spectacular, but Burley’s made himself friends, allies and admirers in many places. At Southampton he turned round a team demoralised by relegation from the Premiership, wounded by boardroom bust-ups, and perilously positioned at the tail end of its ‘parachute payments’ for demotion from the top flight.

Burley guided Saints to the 2006–07 Championship play-offs, losing on penalties in the second leg of the semi-final after drawing 4–4 on aggregate against his former club Derby County, who went on to win the final.

Equally, one can’t help wondering what would have happened at Tynecastle if the new Scotland boss’s short but stellar reign hadn’t been cut short through Hearts’ flirtation with the madness of the Romanov revolution. He has tactical nous, respect from players, led unfancied Ipswich into Europe, and maintains trustworthy links on both sides of the border. Hopefully Eck’s legacy will continue.

Scotland have qualified for nine World Cup Finals, though as pub quiz aficionados know, we’ve only actually competed in eight. In a fit of what may now be regarded as misplaced honour, the Scottish Football Association declined to participate in the1950 finals because Scotland were not then British champions.

These days it’s astonishing to recall that we reached the finals of every FIFA World Cup from 1974 to 1990. The golden years. Then again, agonisingly, Scotland missed out on progressing to the second round on goal difference three times: in 1974, when Brazil edged us; in 1978, when Holland stole the glory (in spite of that wonderful ‘Gemmill moment’); and again in 1982, when the USSR went through.

What fate will befall us this time? It’s hard not to feel nervous. But the Euro campaign has turned hearts and minds, which, if not half the battle, makes a big difference. This time, more than in the previous two outings, the challenge is in Scotland’s own hands. That’s what we want for Sons, too.

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