O’Neill Observes — In the bleak Scottish midwinter, football is a shining star

By Jeremy O’Neill
Executive Staff

For my last article as Sports Editor for The Purple, I am choosing to write about a story very close to my heart. Whether or not one can be romantic about sports is debatable, but the story of the Scottish Men’s National Football Team is one that can certainly pull some emotions. 

The second week of November was a difficult one for the Scottish People. England announced a four week strict lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, with similar restrictions looming for the Scots. Pubs and restaurants in most areas are not allowed to be open past 6 p.m. and cannot serve alcohol (difficult for a nation known for whisky). The past year has seen the country forced to leave the European Union against its will, as while the United Kingdom as a whole voted to cut ties with Brussels, the Scottish people voted overwhelmingly to remain.  All of this comes in a region that is not known for bright and pleasant weather. The sun goes down at 3:45 p.m. in Kirkwall these days, and many areas are reporting 14 straight days of rain, which is not uncommon. 

But while the Scottish people were sitting at home, they sent a coalition of their finest soccer players to Belgrade, Serbia on November 12. The Scots needed to win to qualify for the UEFA Euro 2020 tournament, being played in June 2021 due to COVID postponement. A win was unlikely, facing a Serbian squad which included the likes of proven world-class players Dušan Tadić, Aleksandar Mitrović, Luka Jović, and many others. To add to Scottish pessimism, the Tartan Army had not seen qualification for any major tournament since 1998.

The first half was scoreless, with the Serbians not showing much creativity, presumably assuming that they could escape with a draw without putting in much effort. All of this changed, however, in the 52nd minute when Glasgow Celtic’s Ryan Christie dug into the wet, muddy, Serbian grass and flicked a shot goalwards. It seemed unlikely, and to come out of nowhere, but the ball knocked off the goalpost and in behind the Serbian goalkeeper. Was it flashy? No. But it still put the Scottish up by a goal to nil. 

Right as celebration plans were begging to flash across Scottish minds, the inevitable happened for a team that has faced a quarter century of frustration on the football pitch. Luka Jović scored an easy headed goal in the 90th minute of the game, forcing the game into extra time. An uneventful added time set up the most heartbreaking of soccer events, the penalty shoot out. 

Both team’s kick takers scored their first 4 tries, setting up a sudden death scenario. Kenny McLean converted Scotland’s fifth penalty, which was all his team needed. Goalkeeper David Marshall denied Serbian star Aleksandar Mitrović’s attempt at an equalizer to send the Scots to the Euros. Celebrations broke out across the country and the St. Andrew’s cross was raised on a rainy night in Belgrade. 

This game and this narrative is a classic underdog story. A group of lads with funny accents who play for a random assortment of clubs in the UK took on the European football establishment and passed their test. With a funny selection of talents – arguably Scotland’s two best players play the same position, as Andy Robertson of Liverpool and Kieran Tierney of Arsenal both play left back – Scotland has drawn into a Euro 2020 group that includes Croatia, the Czech Republic, and most importantly for the sake of the story, England. 

The Scottish will undoubtedly have June 18, 2021 circled on their calendars, as they will travel south to face their bitter rivals, England. The two teams will face off at Wembley Stadium in London, and Scotland will once again be a huge underdog. The polished England side is coming off of a deep run in the World Cup, and has hundreds of millions of pounds worth of Premier League. 

But how either team performs is irrelevant to the broader cultural ramifications of the contest. The ability to take a crack at their big brothers, both politically and athletically, will not be wasted by the Scottish National Team and its supporters. The contest will give the country something to cheer about and look forward to, and will raise its spirits heading into the Christmas season and the long Scottish winters. 

Which brings me to nostalgia, and romanticism. On December 24, 1947, when my grandfather was sixteen years old, he left his home in Dundee, a Scottish city ravaged by the second world war in search of a better life in America. He was a short, blue eyed immigrant with a funny accent in New York’s sea of people. But the United States represented hope. 

While watching Ryan Christie’s interview after Scotland’s important match, I couldn’t help but think about how the hope he had given a nation in dark times extended beyond the football pitch and into everyday life. I also couldn’t help but think: “this is why I write about sports.” And while many claim that sports are no longer relevant to culture, or that romantic ramblings such as this one about how “it’s more than a game” are unnecessary and overly emotional, I am grateful that 5 million Scottish people at least have June 18 to hope for, and I am grateful for sports, and those who have read my ramblings about them over the past year. So, it is my greatest wish that Sewanee athletes who might not know when their next competition will be, or if it will ever take place, will at least be able to look at the plucky Scottish soccer players to see that there always can be a glimmer of hope.