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At last, Scotland are glorious without the failure



 To be honest, I was ready to just pack it in.

When Luka Jovic's header flew into the net, it felt like one heartbreak, one Glorious Failure too many. I just could not do it anymore.

As Jovic celebrated, my mind was already racing ahead. The heads would be gone. We'd get creamed in extra time. If somehow we didn't, we'd screw up the penalties. I just couldn't be having with the agony of supporting Scotland any more. My wife is Northern Irish - perhaps I could just bring up my boys to support them instead, and they might get the joy of qualifying for something occasionally? Heck, I've got a mate from Gibraltar - they might lose all the time but I bet they don't care about it.

You'd like to think that had we lost I would have got over the misery and been ready to do it all again for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Thankfully, we'll never know...

For the first 89 minutes in Belgrade Scotland produced their best team performance in over a decade. It was clear from the early stages that Steve Clarke had got his tactics spot on and from front to back the starting eleven were tremendous. 

At one end of the pitch Lyndon Dykes, the Australian who was playing for Queen Of The South eighteen months ago and who looks more like one of the 'pre-cogs' from Minority Report than a centre forward, gave a marvellous throwback performance of shoulder barges, deft flick-ons and runs into the channels that will still have the Serb defenders looking over their shoulders this morning.

At the other end a back three consisting of Kieran Tierney (a natural left-back), Declan Gallagher (of Motherwell) and Scott McTominay (a natural midfielder) looked every bit the equal of the great Boyd-Calderwood-Hendry trinity of the mid-nineties. Any pre-match doubts I had about Gallagher's merits have well and truly evaporated; it was nice of him to let Aleksandar Mitrovic out of his pocket for long enough to take a penalty in the shootout.

Between defence and attack there was Callum McGregor, so often underwhelming at international level but here playing more like the Celtic version from the last few years than the one of the last few months, demanding the ball at every opportunity and directing play,. Ahead of him was the whirling dervish that is John McGinn, covering every blade of grass, bouncing off opponents with that magnificent arse of his.

And the rest were great too. At half-time some moron suggested Scotland would benefit more from having a natural striker on the pitch than Ryan Christie.

The fact we played so well - so much better than the Serbs - made it worse. It's glorious failure if you're the plucky underdogs that have been unluckily thwarted, not when you're the better team by miles. 

Even in despair I couldn't bring myself to turn off the TV. Loyalty? Masochism? A tiny grain of hope? Make up your own mind as to the reason. The extra time purgatory was only exacerbated by Clarke's substitutions which were made with the intention of protecting our lead and beefing us up on defending set pieces (that went well...) but left the team dreadfully unbalanced and unthreatening. Oli McBurnie, who had replaced the spent Dykes, was utterly awful, the ball bouncing off him repeatedly as if his whole body was just one big shin. Another sub, Callum Paterson, started up front and ended up going out to the right flank, which suddenly looked more vulnerable than when only Stephen O'Donnell had been protecting it.

Yet with Scotland against the ropes with wobbly knees and eyes out of focus, Serbia failed to land the knockout blow. Only once was David Marshall seriously threatened, the veteran keeper pulling off a wonderful fingertip save from Nemanja Gudelj. At the interval in extra-time not only captain Andy Robertson but also McGregor, Marshall and Ryan Jack could be seen trying to lift their comrades. Scotland had bent, but they were not broken.

But penalties would surely be our undoing, right? In Christie, McGinn and Dykes we had substituted three potential takers. For every Scotland player who stepped forward and grabbed the ball, I convinced myself it was their destiny to miss. Leigh Griffiths was brought on as a sub just to take a penalty, which seemed to make him a hostage to fortune. McGregor's performance, his best ever in a Scotland shirt, seemed too good to be true. McTominay was the man who should have been marking Jovic for the goal and who seemed to be setting himself up to be the goat of the game. McBurnie, so often a disappointment, had the pressure of knowing that if he missed he would be derided forever. And was it not too much to ask for Kenny McLean, hero against Israel, to reprise his role of iceman once more?

Yet they all held firm. Griffiths' penalty was the diciest of the lot but still went in off the goalkeeper's hand. McGregor dispatched his expertly. McTominay smashed it into the bottom corner like a man who had completely forgotten his role in the equalizer. McBurnie sent the goalkeeper the wrong way. McLean surely deserves a promotion from Mayor of Norwich to Duke of Edinburgh.

And then there was Marshall. Whenever he is mentioned I still mentally picture the 19 year old teenager who in 2004 single-handedly repelled Barcelona at the Camp Nou for Celtic. His subsequent career, though very decent, has never hit such heights again. Until now, sixteen years on. I never thought for a second that Aleksandar Mitrovic, an accomplished penalty taker, would miss. And yet he was the one who cracked. It wasn't a dreadful penalty but Marshall moved as if he had springs on his feet to make a terrific save to his left.

Of course, then there was that awful split-second where Marshall had to look to the referee, to confirm VAR wouldn't spoil this golden moment. But as the goalie said afterward, what's another four or five seconds when you've had to wait 22 years?

While all that was happening, I had somehow gone from pacing the living room anxiously to being on my knees, fists clenched, arms in the air, biting my lip partly to stop me from screaming out and waking my wife and small children and partly to stop me from crying. I was 14 the last time we qualified for something. It has been a hell of a long time. I am going to savour this all the way until June. Erect a statue of Steve Clarke, build another one of David Marshall, give Andy Robertson a knighthood. As far as I'm concerned, it's the least they deserve.

Something changed last night. You could already feel it in the build up that this country, from the younger generation who have never seen us at a tournament and think of the national team as one big joke, to the older, increasingly weary, cynical and apathetic Tartan Army veterans, were just about ready to let the national team back into their hearts. Man, we had to suffer for it. But this extraordinary, terrible, beautiful suffering has always been what supporting Scotland is about. Right now those 22 years all seem worth it. At last, Scotland are glorious without the failure.

We are back.

Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

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