Grounds for optimism in Scotland

Pessimism and Scottish football may have been convenient bedfellows for much of the last 30 years. But for the first time since Ally MacLeod promised the world in 1978 a huge wave of optimism is sweeping the country.

Back then MacLeod, manager of the national side, declared he would return from the FIFA World Cup™ in Argentina with a medal and the fans believed him. Scotland, however, were knocked out in the first round.

Such widespread confidence in the country's footballing abilities disappeared, seemingly never to return. However, by the end of 2007 Scottish football, at both club and international level, has undergone something of a renaissance.

The Scottish international side may have failed once more to qualify for a major finals - their last participation being at France 1998. But their UEFA EURO 2008 campaign, in a group containing Italy, France and Ukraine, exceeded all expectations when they finished third.

In addition to beating France home and away, the Scots were only denied qualification in their final game with a narrow 2-1 defeat against Italy at Hampden. But failure to make the finals in Austria and Switzerland has not extinguished the growing anticipation that something special is happening in the country.

Club sides step up
And it is not just on the international stage that Scotland is once again beginning to dream. On the European level Scottish clubs are showing they can again compete.

For the first time since 1970 three clubs are guaranteed European football after Christmas - with Celtic in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, while Rangers and Aberdeen are in the last 32 of the UEFA Cup. Both Celtic and Rangers qualified for the group stages of the Champions League - only the second time the two have played at that level of Europe's premier club competition in the same season.

And while only the Parkhead club managed to qualify, Rangers can hold their heads high after finishing third with seven points in a group which included Barcelona, French champions Lyon and German title winners Stuttgart.

In the Scottish Premier League things are slowly becoming a bit more interesting. Although the table is still currently topped by Celtic and Rangers - and the title is likely to remain in Glasgow for the foreseeable future - the other sides seem to be closing the gap.

Hibernian, Hearts, Dundee United and Inverness Caledonian Thistle have all defeated at least one of the Old Firm this season, while St Mirren, Kilmarnock and Motherwell have held them to draws. By Christmas only five points separated the top three clubs - compared to this time last season when Celtic were already 16 points clear of the chasing pack.

The basis for the optimism is the emergence of a new breed of confident and highly skilled young players who are being developed at the clubs and given their chance. Examples include Rangers' Alan Hutton, Celtic's Scott Brown and Everton's James McFadden - who not only believe they are good enough to succeed at the highest level, but have already shown it for their clubs and country.

No-one is about to claim the Scottish Premier League is the best in the world, or that Scotland will win the FIFA World Cup, but there are real grounds for a bright future. And this time the optimism may last longer than in 1978.