Two seasons ago, Scotland were chasing dreams in Dortmund. On Saturday they were chasing shadows in Metz.
The late night hop over the channel back to Glasgow was akin to not being invited to the party you helped blow up the balloons and lay out the buffet for.
As Gordon Strachan’s players quickly boarded their flight home from the north east of France having offered themselves up as sparring partners for the Euro 2016 hosts, the wondering of what might have been truly set in.
France’s resounding 3-0 victory evoked painful memories of a similar towelling at the hands of Les Bleus under Berti Vogts in Saint Denis in 2000.
And, as the French mainland disappeared behind the squad’s charter plane, so too did the European Championship that begins in just a few days, without the Scots.
If only Georgia’s Valeri Qazaishvili hadn’t fired past David Marshall in Tblisi. If only John O’Shea and Shane Long hadn’t scored on separate occasions against world champions Germany for Republic of Ireland. If only the Scots had been more adventurous in Dublin when things were in their hands.
‘You want to play the best’
In truth, there hasn’t been much for the Tartan Army to get excited about since qualifying hopes were torturously snuffed by Robert Lewandowski’s stoppage-time leveller in October, with defeats by Italy in Malta and France in Metz serving as a major reality check.
- Scotland well beaten by France
- Strachan acknowledges French lesson
The wisdom of undertaking such tall orders is questionable. ‘Unwinnable’ games without key squad members at the end of a long season.
“You want to play against the best,” defender Charlie Mulgrew – who played in both matches – argued in the aftermath of the French thrashing.
“It’s difficult. Everybody’s gutted we lost that way, the confidence has taken a wee bit of a knock.
“But, when we take a look back, we can benefit from an experience like that when we come up against teams like England and Slovenia. All of us will take positives from it.
“You expect criticism, that’s part and parcel of playing for your national team. I’m sure the fans and us as players and everybody involved with Scotland don’t want to roll over and get beat.
“We’ve got to move on and not over-think it.”
It is difficult to dine at the top table these days, although Northern Ireland are proof that you don’t necessarily have to pick from the same top drawer that France do to get there.
And, as 24 European nations prepare to take to the field at Euro 2016, Strachan is left to ponder exactly where he and his players are in terms of reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The true value of Scotland’s end-of-season excursion and matches against world-class opponents won’t bear fruit until 4 September at the earliest when the players return to Malta for the opening qualifier.
Although the training camp was on the Mediterranean island, the standard of opponent owed more to preparing for key clashes early in the campaign against Slovakia and England away from home in the autumn than their Maltese reunion.
Strachan has already admitted the altogether more difficult task of qualifying for the World Cup – given second place does not offer the same guarantee of progression – will mean Scotland require a headline-creating outcome from at least one of those games.
Victory in Slovenia may be a necessity. A tall order for a side whose only away victory in Euro 2016 qualifying was against the pointless Gibraltar.
A worthwhile exercise?
But, while the games with the Italians and the French have hardly captured the imagination of a depressed Tartan Army, have they and the fortnight-long gathering served their purpose?
“We’ve had great conversations,” Strachan said. “The weather (in Malta) was perfect to train in.
“It would have been a real problem for me to have only played the one game and the players disappear right after and there’s no time to debrief and have a look at it again.
“What did I get out of it? We didn’t get a win and that’s disappointing. I got knowledge, the coaching staff got knowledge about what we do.
“We’ve got young players coming through like Stephen (Kingsley) and Barrie (McKay) and seeing who can work with us, who wants to work with us and who we want to add.
“We’ll only know that when they get big game time and that’s what they got here.”
Steven Naismith, who earned his 43rd cap against the French, agrees with his manager that the trip has been beneficial.
“With being away, everybody’s been together as a squad for the whole time, we’ve had some free afternoons,” said the Norwich City forward.
“As a squad, we’ve maybe gone out for a bit of food or a coffee and things like that, so it’s been great for the mixture of the youngsters and the older boys.
“We’ve managed to get to know each other and get that familiar feeling and the natural progression from that is taking it on to the training pitch and then into games.
“It’s definitely been worthwhile.”
We’ll know if Naismith is right before the turn of the year, by which time reaching Russia will be a realistic prospect or yet another dashed dream.