There is certainly cause for optimism for all of the Home Nations right now, but perhaps none more so than Scotland.
Last week’s 2-2 draw with Poland was a blow considering they conceded late having led for a large part of the match, yet it’s certainly a point gained and highlights the extent to which they’ve progressed since Gordon Strachan took over as manager in 2013. The situation has improved to the extent where Scotland were genuinely disappointed not to have won; a game they would probably have lost not so long ago.
Three games into the 2016 European Championship Qualification campaign, there is a belief that this might be the time for Scotland to break their curse and stand on the big stage for the first time since they qualified for the World Cup in 1998.
The evidence so far is very encouraging. A spirited showing against the world champions Germany, where they were cruelly denied a deserved point in a 2-1 defeat, a dogged 1-0 win against Georgia and the draw with Poland suggest their upward trajectory may just continue.
Strachan has brought the confidence back to the Scottish national side. Not since the days of Alex McLeish six years ago (where Scotland were on the verge of qualifying for Euro 2008), have ‘The Tartan Army’ played with such verve, vigour and confidence.
While the debate continues about the state of the domestic Scottish game, and with international football often left to take a back seat in comparison to club, Scotland’s improvements on the field are particularly refreshing to see.
Next month’s home game against the Republic of Ireland will likely prove to be pivotal if Strachan’s side are to remain in the hunt for qualification. They have, however, shown they can mix it with the best, as seen last month against the Germans.
With the recent criticism thrown at England’s Raheem Sterling regarding whether the pride to play for your country still remains in modern football, it’s fantastic to see the enthusiasm and confidence that Scotland have displayed in their last few matches.
While Scotland have been encouraged by impressive displays from Gordon Greer, Steven Naismith and Shaun Maloney and above all, the form of Ikechi Anya.
The diminutive Watford winger has emerged as one of the first names on the team-sheet and provides them with pace and potency, the like of which was displayed in the role he played in their second goal in Warsaw.
Not only is Anya an extremely exciting part of Strachan’s plans, his story is truly something in that he has risen from being released by Wycombe Wanderers, to having spells in non-league football with Oxford City and Halesowen Town, before moving to Spain via Sevilla, Atlético and Celta B to Granada and then Watford. He remains equally as pivotal to their hopes in the Championship this season.
The likes of Stevie May and Andy Robertson promise to continue to develop in the next couple of years, while 18 year old prodigy Ryan Gauld (who secured a move from Dundee United to Sporting Lisbon in the summer), although not a member of the senior side yet, promises to figure in the future.
With the qualification campaign still in its infancy, all the talk will be firmly about keeping their feet on the ground, and using that old football cliché: ‘taking it one game at a time’. Strachan himself stated that the group will likely go to the wire, and even if Scotland were to miss qualification for Euro 2016, they have shown they are more competitive than they have been for quite some time.
With the expanded European Championships giving yet more hope to the home nations, it will be an opportunity that the Scotland coaching staff will want to take full advantage of.
There has been a lot of negativity, as briefly alluded to earlier, about the domestic scene in Scotland, particularly with the Rangers débâcle a few years ago, and the relegation of Edinburgh giants Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian last season.
However, with four points gained from a possible nine, Strachan’s side have shown they can produce results when it matters, and play good football in the process. The style of play has led some to call it the best Scotland side on the eye since the 1980s. I’ll leave you to make your own judgement on that.
One thing is certain though. It is a far cry from the hopeless negativity deployed by Strachan’s predecessor Craig Levein, who against the Czech Republic in 2010 infamously deployed a 4-6-0 formation. Unsurprisingly, and deservedly so, he was chastised for such stubborn tactics.
Scotland may or may not qualify for Euro 2016 in France. Nonetheless, optimism has not been higher for quite some time. Managing this increased expectation will be key to their chances, but they have shown enough to suggest they have every chance.