A lot of negativity has been raised about how far Scotland’s footballers have plummeted to new lows, especially after the debacle of Liechtenstein.
The senior team may not be everyone’s drink of Irn Bru in Scotland, but the Under 21’s could get the ball rolling in the Tartan Army’s favour, to end the series of hopelessly, repetitive post- enquiries of the state of the country’s game.
Billy Starks’ team have reached the play offs, where they stand on the verge of qualifying for the Under 21 Championships for the first time since 1996, if they overcome Iceland over two legs.
Though the real test is still come, this suggests to me that this particular group of young footballers are a new hope for the country, particularly as it has been so long since the Under 21’s were in a championship.
The 2-1 victory over Austria last week at Pittodrie which sealed their passage to the play offs was a fine display. Both Barry Bannan and Chris Maguire’s goals could be labelled as screamers and were struck superbly. The passing play from Scotland too, certainly in contrast to their senior counterparts, was another bonus point. David Goodwillie playing up front alongside Maguire, displayed a fine accuracy of passing and touch ability, and Paul Coutts, a tenacious midfielder from Preston North End produced hard graft, and good awareness.
When you consider the clear lack of basic passing ability at Hampden just a few hours later, you can see why even one of the simplest attributes in football is something worth celebrating for Scotland.
In terms of footballers, Scotland as a country, have produced players who have had fantastic potential early on but were never able to fulfil it later on in their careers. This has happened predominately over the last twenty years with players such as Eoin Jess, Stephen Glass and Derek Riordan to name a few of a very long list of those who never made the step up. From the last Under 21 squad to reach a European Championship back in 1996, only four players, Simon Donnelly, Steven Pressley, Christian Dailly and Jackie McNamara were all capped at senior team level. What is going to make this current group of youngsters any different?
One current argument can be drawn. What message does it serve to the Under 21 squad, if the senior manager, Craig Levein is picking his teams compromising of defensive formations, with strength and stamina played out over flair and technique?
I can relate with several of the footballers in the squad particularly by age and generation, but like any job or career, it will be their decisions and mental ability that will impact upon the rest of their careers. Will they be any different from the ones in the past?
Dundee United striker, David Goodwillie at the age of 21 already has a Scottish Cup medal to his name and looks like a good prediction to advance to senior level. Despite having a poor start to the season, and not being a prolific goal scorer, his technique and passing vision won him the SPL Young Player of the Year last season, and he certainly puts Kris Boyd to shame.
Midfielder, Paul Coutts has already learnt the hard way and worked his way up. Released by Aberdeen at an early age, he went into the flux of non league football joining Cove Rangers in the Highland League. He was then invited to a trial by Peterborough United in English League 1 where he won a contract after impressing with his ball control. After two years at the club, he joined Preston North End earlier this year where he has arguably been one of the club’s better players in a dismal start to the season in the English Championship.
Danny Wilson and Barry Bannan, are both players at English Premiership clubs, and while they can learn from some of the best in the business, there is no substitute for regular first team football. Wilson moved to Liverpool this summer after just one season at Rangers where he was elevated into the first team, winning the domestic league and cup double. Bannan has already shown glimpses of potential at Aston Villa where he scored in a 1-1 draw in the Europa League away against Rapid Vienna, and with his clubs shaky start to the season, will be hoping to impress new manager Gerard Houllier.
These examples of players mentioned may not seem outstanding compared to the stars that Germany and Spain constantly produce but it has been these combination of particular footballers that has elevated Scotland to this crucial stage.
The opposition however are no mean feat. Iceland, despite what many considered the best draw for Scotland, had an outstanding qualifying campaign. Their personal highlights en route to the play off included thrashing Germany 4-1 at home and drawing 2-2 away. They also trashed Northern Ireland 6-2 away and top this off, notched 8-0 and 11-0 wins over the group’s minnows, San Marino. Scared yet? They were the highest goalscorers in qualifying.
Elimination against Iceland however will not be tolerated by Scotland, and though it has been refreshing to see the next generation of footballers achieve some success, in the wave of doom and gloom, this two legged series next month in October, will go some way to deciding their careers.