Scotland’s History at the European Championships

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Updated: Apr 29, 2021 6:25 pm

Steve Clarke will lead Scotland to a major international tournament for the first time in a generation, when he takes his squad to this summers European Championships.

Between now and their opening match at Hampden on the 14th of June, the tartan army will be dreaming of Euro success and pulling off an upset by beating England at Wembley. Perhaps that one result would be more important to them than achieving anything else, although qualifying out of the group is far from a pipe dream.

Scotland has already beaten the Czech Republic in the last year and with two of the group games being on home soil, Clarke will be confident his side can take something from those games against the Czechs and Croatia, in front of a limited number of supporters.

With a third-place finish in the group offering a possible place in the knockout rounds, Scotland will take inspiration from the likes of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland who used that same route to get into the last 16 at the 2016 European Championships.

Craig Brown was the last manager to take a Scotland side to a major international tournament.  That was the World Cup in France, 1998, where Scotland fell to holders Brazil and African minnows Morocco on either side of a draw with Norway.

Two years before that, however, Brown’s Scotland travelled south of the border to take part at Euro 96 where they were much more competitive in the group, albeit being eliminated at the same hurdle.  This was Scotland’s last appearance at the European Championship, a tournament they have had a difficult relationship with since its inception in 1960.

Scotland declined entry to the inaugural tournament in 1960 and then again in 1964.  The growing importance of the world cup as well as the popular British Home Championships were seen to be more important on the footballing calendar.  The tournament, however, grew rapidly without them.  The popularity of the European club competition helped promote what could be an exciting international competition.

Only seventeen teams attempted qualification to the 1960 European Championships, then called the European nations cup, but this grew to twenty-nine for the 1964 version, of which England would be one for their first attempt at the European Championship.  Not to be outdone by the “Auld Enemy”, Scotland would enter the qualifying rounds for the 1968 tournament.

Again, there was growth for what was now UEFA’s flagship international event.  Thirty-one teams attempted qualification and for the first time a qualifying group stage was introduced. Despite this change to the format, however, Scotland, and the rest of the home nations were not paired with teams from around the continent.

Instead, the results of the 1966-67 and 1967-68 Home Championships were combined to make what would be referred to as ‘Qualifying Group 8’.  Despite winning the 1966-67 Home Championship Scotland would ultimately finish one point behind England in the mini-league and miss out on a place in the quarter-finals.

Jim Baxter
Scotland star Jim Baxter is mobbed by fans after winning the British Home Championships in 1967 at Wembley.

In 1972 Scotland would finally be able to leave the British Isles for a European Championship qualifying campaign.  Drawn beside Portugal, Denmark and Belgium in Group 5.  Impressively, Scotland won all three home games, beating Denmark and Portugal at Hampden, and Belgium at Pittodrie, Aberdeen. However, Scotland failed to register a single goal away from home, losing all three games. Scotland finished third in the group as Belgium advanced to the quarter-finals and then eventually the final tournament which they hosted.

The mid to late 1970’s offered a frustrating period for Scotland who missed out on qualifying for the 1976 European championships by two points.  The only defeat of the campaign coming at the hands of Spain, who topped the group without losing a match.

This was followed by a disappointing showing two years later at the world cup, despite manager Ally MacLeod saying his side would return with “at least a medal.”  Having stars like Liverpool’s Kenny Dalglish and Manchester United’s Joe Jordan in the team was clearly not be enough to make Scotland competitive on the global stage, despite the manager’s confidence.

This was the start of a repeating trend for Scotland who continued to fail to qualify for the European Championships.  Scotland came closest though in 1988.  Opening the group with an away draw to the Republic of Ireland and a routine home win against Luxembourg, thanks to goals from Davie Cooper and Maurice Johnstone, had given the tartan army hope that this could finally be their year.

However, this was quickly dampened by consecutive defeats to Ireland and Belgium. Qualification was still not impossible though and Scotland beat both Belgium and Bulgaria, along with a draw against Bulgaria, to challenge what was proving to be an exceedingly difficult and competitive group.

A draw in the final group game with Luxembourg ensured Scotland would finish second bottom of the group but the tartan army looked forward to the next round of qualifying as the competitive nature of the campaign had given them hope.

That hope would be rewarded with success as, in 1992, Scotland finally qualified for UEFA’s European Championships.  Scotland were a little lucky in qualifying, avoiding the likes of England, Italy and Germany who had made up three of the four semi-finalists at the world cup just months before the qualifying campaign began.  Instead, Bulgaria, Romania, Switzerland and San Marino made up qualifying group 2 along with the Scots.  Scotland only lost one game in the group, away to top seeds Romania, who won 1-0 thanks to a penalty from Real Madrid’s Gheorghe Hagi.

They still did not know if they had won the group or not going into the last couple of fixtures though.  On the 13th of November 1991, Scotland beat San Marino at Hampden thanks to goals from Ally McCoist, Richard Gough, Gordon Durie and Paul McSaty, this was their final match. However, Romania had one more game left to play, away to Bulgaria on the 20th of November.

A one-goal win for “Tricolorii”, would see them match Scotland for points, goal difference and goals scored, any greater result and they would top the group outright.  Should such a tie have occurred, UEFA’s alternative plan at the time was to draw lots to see who earned the right to go the final tournament.  Thankfully for Scotland, and avoiding a UEFA headache, Romania could only manage a draw with Bulgaria.

In Scotland’s first taste of the European Championship tournament football, they would come up against the world champions Germany, the Netherlands and C.I.S, who were representing the football federation of the Soviet Union. Scotland lost the opening two games against the vastly superior Dutch and German teams before restoring a little pride with a win over C.I.S.

Paul McStay scored Scotland’s first Euro’s goal that evening which was followed up by a Brian McClair strike and a Gary McAllister penalty.

The draw for the qualifying phase of Euro 96 was another that was kind to Scotland.  From the teams seeded in pot one and two Scotland were drawn with Russia and Greece, avoiding Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and holders Denmark. At the other end of the seedings, Scotland was given trips to Finland, Faroe Islands and San Marino.

Now managed by Craig Brown, Scotland would qualify for the tournament by finishing second in the group. Scotland won seven of the ten games which allowed them to qualify for the championships as one of the best-placed runners up.

Scotland was to be drawn in Group A along with Switzerland, Holland, who had beaten Scotland at the previous tournament, and the hosts, England.  Excitement built ahead of the opening game with the Dutch as Scotland supporters fancied themselves as underdogs.  It was a wonderful summer in the UK that year and many Scotland fans still look back on this tournament with fond nostalgia despite being knocked out in the group stage.

The group opened with two draws, Scotland and Holland played out a scoreless result at Villa Park, but before that England could only manage a one each draw with the Swiss.  That meant it was all to play for going into matchday two.  Holland beat the Swiss to top the group which meant whoever won between Scotland and England would be favourites to join the Dutch in the next round.

Both sets of fans produced an electric atmosphere inside Wembley as the match got underway, however, it was a cagey start.  Both sets of players seemed to take their time to settle in. Scotland enjoyed large spells of possession in the first half and had several chances on goal. Colin Calderwood found himself in space in the box and was unlucky to have the ball played behind him by Colin Hendry, which allowed the England defence time to close him down.

It took until the second half before there was a breakthrough.  A Gary Neville cross was headed past Andy Goram by England number nine Alan Shearer.  Shortly after, Gordon Durie found himself unmarked in the England box and jumped to meet a John Collins cross.  A quick reflex save from David Seaman at his near post kept Scotland from equalising.

Scotland continued to push forward and in the 77th minute they were awarded a penalty. Tony Adams brought down Gordon Durie as he competed for a Stuart McCall pass.  David Seaman would save Gary McAllister’s spot-kick though as he guessed the right way and cleared the ball over the bar with his elbow.

Penalty Save
David Seaman saves Gary McAllister at Euro 96.

Moments later England would be two up and the game effectively over.  Paul Gascoigne would score a goal that would be romanticised for years to come from England supporters and rightfully so.  The touch and control, worthy of the praise.

Despite the defeat at Wembley the tournament was not over for Scotland.   Craig Brown’s side headed back to Villa Park to play Switzerland.  A win in the final game would mean Scotland could still qualify although this would also depend on England doing them a favour at Wembley against the Dutch.

Ally McCoist gave the Scots a 1-0 win, but it would not be enough to qualify out of the group and into the quarter-final.  Even if Patrick Kluivert had not scored a consolation goal in Hollands 4-1 defeat to England, Scotland would still have required more than one goal in the last game to go through.

That proved to be Scotland’s last game at the European Championships.  Their qualifying campaigns would be largely disappointing, however, there would be one or two hard-luck stories and famous victories.

In 2000, Scotland would finish runner up in their qualifying group behind the Czech Republic who had won all ten games in the process.  This would set up a playoff tie and Scotland would once again face England.  England won the first game at Hampden thanks to a double from Paul Scholes but would prove difficult to finish off four days later at Wembley.

Don Hutchison gave Scotland a 1-0 lead going into half time setting up an exciting final 45 minutes, but that would prove to be the only goal of the game and England would win 2-1 on aggregate.

Scotland, now managed by Berti Vogts, would again finish as runners up in the Euro 2004 qualifying campaign setting up yet another playoff match.  Scotland was drawn against familiar Euro opposition Holland and won the first leg 1-0 thanks to a James McFadden goal. Holland would turn the class on in the return leg though beating Scotland 6-0 in Amsterdam.

Scotland would finish third in the 2008 qualifying group, but this was far from outright failure.  Only Italy and France would finish above the Scots in the group, these of course being the two sides that had contested the world cup final just two months before the campaign had kicked off.

Scotland would register two famous victories before crashing out: winning both the home and away ties 1-0 against France. James McFadden scored a wonderful strike from about 30 yards out after he found himself in space in Paris to seal the win.

James McFadden
James McFadden celebrates his wonder strike against France.

The 2012 campaign ended in disappointment as did the qualifying campaign in 2016. UEFA made the decision to expand the tournament in France from 16 to 24 teams.  This opened the door for nations who usually struggled to qualify, however Scotland finished fourth in the group behind Germany, Poland and the Republic of Ireland.

Scotland’s qualification struggles continued into the 2020 campaign as they finished third behind FIFA’s top-ranked team, Belgium, who won all their group matches and Russia, who automatically qualified despite finishing second. Scotland lost both matches to Belgium and to Russia along the way but the most disappointing result was the opening day defeat to Kazakhstan. Despite this embarrassing defeat, all was not lost for Scotland and the tartan army.

Unlike in previous years the playoff entrants would not be decided through the qualifying group stages but through the newly formed UEFA Nations League.  Scotland topped group C which set up a playoff semi-final tie with Israel who had become regular visitors to Hampden.  Scotland would need penalties to get past “the blue and white’s” but this would prove to be good practice as Scotland would be taken to another penalty shoot-out in the playoff final against Serbia.

Ryan Christie had given Scotland the lead but Luka Jovic equalised in the dying moments of the game, forcing extra time.  It would be goalkeeper David Marshall who would prove to be the shoot out hero as he saved from Aleksandar Mitrovic to put Scotland into the 2020 European Championships.

This should of course have been Scotland’s first major international tournament in twenty-two years, but the COVID pandemic resulted in the competition being postponed and extended that unwanted run by another 12 months.

Either way, the tartan army will be delighted to have broken what must have felt like a curse placed on the national side since 1998.

Steve Clarke has until the start of June to name his 26-man squad who he will take to the warm weather training camp in Spain, before returning to their Euro camp in Middlesbrough. Until then Scotland fans will debate who should and should not make the squad and all those players will be dreaming that they will be the one who can write their name into Scottish football folklore along with the likes of Gemmill, Law and Dalglish.

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