Scotland's sporting landscape may remain utterly dominated by football, but with the senior side having failed to reach a major championship since France 98, the progress of the country's U-20s has come as a timely and warmly-received fillip. It is a measure, certainly, of how greatly any sort of success is craved in this football-obsessed nation that its main terrestrial television channel readily ditched its scheduled programmes to cover live the march of Archie Gemmill's young side to the final of last year's UEFA European U-19 Championship in Poland.
En route to the final, the Scots had swept aside Portugal, Turkey and the Czech Republic - this after ousting France in qualifying - and though, in the end, all the fairytale lacked was a happy ending, the players' reward for a gallant 2-1 defeat to an exceptional Spain side was a heroes' welcome on their return home, and of course a place at Canada 2007.
Midfielder Charlie Grant, whose red hair and fearless, combative style make him the stereotypical Scottish scrapper, believes the tournament not only won he and his team-mates friends, but earned them respect. "We went as underdogs and were the team least fancied to win," he said, "but at the end all 10,000 Polish fans were singing for Scotland. It was exceptional effort. Now we want to go on from here."
That, of course, is the challenge, and how Gemmill's side fare here in Canada - in front of a Tartan Army of traveling fans and enthusiastic ex-pats - will go a long way to determining whether the 'golden generation' tag is justified.
The coach himself lists a "never-say-die attitude" and "fitness levels that are a compliment to their clubs" as his players' main strengths, yet it was the composed, intelligent and unhurried manner in which the Scots played against Europe's top teams that most impressed many observers, both partisan and neutral. Hibernian's Steven Fletcher, Livingston's Robert Snodgrass and the Celtic trio of Simon Ferry, Ryan Conroy and Michael McGlinchey typify a new breed of skilful, creative Scots being brought through their club's ranks, and though the team still boasts plenty of physical presence in the likes of Hearts' target-man Calum Elliot, anyone caught pigeonholing them as long-ball merchants seem set for the rudest of awakenings.
How fitting that Scotland should be led back on to the world stage by the man who provided the country's single most iconic moment in a FIFA World Cup™ finals. For those who remember the name Archie Gemmill but can't quite place it in context, just think back to Argentina 1978 and to the magnificent, mazy dribble from the little midfielder that secured a memorable 3-2 win for Scotland over Rinus Michels' Netherlands.
Having played, and later coached, under the legendary Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, Gemmill's managerial career at club level was short-lived, lasting all of two seasons with provincial English club Rotherham. Indeed, it was only after some time out of the game, and thanks to an unexpected phonecall from the then Scotland coach Berti Vogts, that the spikey, enthusiastic former Forest and Derby midfielder took charge of the country's U-19s in 2004. It is a role in which he works currently closely with coach Tommy Wilson, and the results, should progress be maintained, could be even more spectacular than that famous strike in '78. "I believe the youngsters respect me for my ability and not just for one goal," Gemmill himself has said. "I am quite good at what I do, actually."
One of a six-strong Celtic contingent in Scotland's European Championship squad, centre-half Scott Cuthbert was awarded the captain's armband for the tournament despite never having played a competitive game for his club at senior level. "He has been my captain for two years and has been nothing short of incredible," was the justification offered by Gemmill, and Cuthbert more than repaid his coach's faith with a series of commanding and decisive defensive performances that saw him voted one of the tournament's top ten players. Though not as tall as his central defensive partner, Gary Kenneth, Cuthbert is strong in the air, quick and aggressive on the ground, and plays with the kind of composure and leadership skills that bode well for his future with both club and country.
What they said…
"The players have a fantastic attitude, allied with ability. They are fit and ambitious and, if they use all those attributes, we will be a hard team to beat. We're on a par with all of the countries we've played against: France, Belgium, Belarus, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Greece and Austria. We've matched them physically and, although technically, in some cases, we are a bit short, we're catching up." (Coach Archie Gemmill, after qualifying for Canada 2007)
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