McLeish: We can be heroes
© AFP

The layout might have been patently unsuitable for the inclement Scottish weather, but in the days when Hampden Park constituted vast swathes of unsheltered terracing, there was a phenomenon known as the 'Hampden Roar.'

Such were the crowds that this colossal 183,000-capacity stadium on Glasgow's south side once held that, no matter where you found yourself in the city, the clamour could be heard reverberating through the streets, heralding a momentous home win.

Scotland's national stadium is, of course, much changed these days. Yet while its current capacity will permit little over a third of the 149,415 who attended the visit of England in 1937 (a European record) to watch Saturday's visit of Italy, a win could very well result in the Hampden Roar being reawakened. That is because Scotland at the moment is a nation in a frenzy, with tickets for Saturday's do-or-die duel with the world champions currently changing hands for several thousands of pounds.

Alex McLeish could attempt to dampen this enthusiasm by playing the match down, but he knows better than to even try. The Scotland coach is also especially well placed to judge its historical significance having grown up watching the likes of Jimmy Johnstone, Denis Law and Kenny Dalglish grace the dark blue shirt, and went on to wear that same jersey on 77 occasions.

He even lined up alongside 'King Kenny' - the only outfield player with more Scotland caps - at Spain 1982, the first of three successive FIFA World Cups™ in which the former centre-half participated as a player. So when McLeish says that victory on Saturday would represent the greatest achievement in Scottish football history, he is speaking from a position of some authority.

"Well, no-one gave us a hope in hell when the draw was made, and understandably so," he said, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com. "So if we can qualify from a group with the world champions, the World Cup finalists and a team (Ukraine) who reached the quarter-finals, I think everyone would say it's our greatest-ever achievement.

"The atmosphere in the country right now is fantastic. Intense, but fantastic. Everyone on the street wants to wish you well, and it's nice to see the nation so united behind the team. The boys can be heroes forever, that's for sure, but really it's marvellous for Scotland just to be in such a position and, regardless of what happens tomorrow, they can be proud of themselves. Win lose or draw, they have succeeded; we have already met the points tally we set ourselves - in fact, we blitzed that. Now we just want to make sure that, whatever happens, Italy leave Glasgow saying 'That was one hell of a game we've just been in'. And I'm sure that will happen."

Belief and butterflies
Not that this current crop of Scotland players will settle for merely giving the world champions a run for their money. The fearless, bullish duo of James McFadden and Scott Brown typify a new breed of swaggering Scots, and they know that while victory will see them through to UEFA EURO 2008, a draw will suit the Italians and leave a nation to pray for a home win when Ukraine host France.

Beating Buffon, Pirlo, Toni et all might represent a tall order by anyone's standards, but having claimed back-to-back wins over France and watched a notable Italian scalp claimed in Glasgow only last month, McLeish is sees no reason why history can't be made. "Celtic beat AC Milan, the European champions - so why can't we beat the world champions?" he said. "It's a good strong squad we have; there's a lot of talent there, and character too. The players we have now are a confident bunch, there's an inner strength, a belief, about them, and there's no shyness there whatsoever. It's marvellous to see."

Their belief is also based on a formidable home record that will doubtless have even the mighty Italians exchanging worried glances. Played five, won five is the Scots' Hampden tally in this EURO qualifying campaign, and the past few years have witnessed France, Germany, Ukraine, the Netherlands and indeed Italy themselves all fail to emerge with a win from this 104-year-old stadium. McLeish, certainly, is in no doubt over the potential benefits of home advantage.

"The crowd will be vital," he said. "Energy-wise, there will be times when we'll need them to drive the players on. There's absolutely no doubt they can be a 12th man for us, the results at Hampden bear that out. Our players will be inspired by them and, for all that Italy are world champions and vastly experienced, they are still human beings. Anyone visiting Hampden right now will come with a bit of apprehension and I guarantee you that the Italians will have butterflies. They'll know they're playing a side capable of beating them, and my players have no reason to doubt themselves."

The world champions might represent the most formidable of barriers, but if Scotland can cause one final upset in this remarkable campaign, McLeish, his players and an entire nation will once again hear Hampden roar.