We may still be more than a month away from Christmas, but David Marshall has already kickstarted next summer. With his save in the Euro play-off penalty shoot-out in Belgrade on Thursday evening, the Derby County goalkeeper has added a whole new layer of anticipation. 2021, with the rescheduled Olympics, with Wimbledon and Ascot returning, and with the Euros being held in London, Dublin and Glasgow was already promising a summer of untrammelled sporting delight. Now suddenly it looks yet more enticing. Now it appears cast in technicolor.
For Scottish football fans this could be the season they have long craved. 22 years the men’s international side has been in the wilderness. Now they are back. Such has been the length of their exile, you could see by the look on Marshall’s face even after he had stopped Alexandr Mitrovic’s spot kick that he wasn’t entirely convinced it was over.
Good things might come to those who wait, but Scotland had been waiting so long his first assumption, as he nervously looked towards the referee to check if he was about to be penalised for straying off his line, was that the wait would continue. He bore the look of a man — and a country — long programmed for disappointment.
So when he realised his block was legitimate, the joy was unbridled. His arm-spread abandon said it all. The celebratory group pile-on, followed by the dressing room disco, was an expression of rare delight matched across the country, as fans piled out into the streets. In Glasgow it was party time. In Edinburgh a bunch of students were spotted dancing naked on a roof top. This is what happens when two decades of hurt are over. Scotland’s men were back in the big time. As they insisted in their celebratory singalong, yes, Sir, these boys can boogie.
And for those of English persuasion, here was a rare moment to share in Scottish excitement. Normally, the followers of both nations relish their neighbours’ misfortune. They root for the opponents in every encounter. But there was none of that on Thursday night. Every English follower wanted Scotland to win, not because of a sudden sympathy for Nicola Sturgeon. But because victory promises to make their supporting life a lot more intriguing and entertaining. With Scotland now lining up in the same group as England in the postponed European Championship a rare spice has been added. Playing Scotland will mean an awful lot more than playing Serbia. The moment that penalty was saved, the two countries were united in one thought: they can barely wait for June.
England against Scotland at Wembley: it is a fixture immediately ensconced in the collective consciousness. Memories will flood back, of Scotland declaring themselves world champions after victory there in 1967, of tartan pitch invasions and snapped crossbars in 1977, of Paul Gascoigne’s dentist chair celebration in 1996.
It might — God willing — be something else too: a celebratory marker of a return to normality. By then a vaccine could allow fans once again to contribute to events. And, if invited, how Scotland’s supporters would add to next summer’s competition. I remember covering the last international tournament they qualified for, the 1998 World Cup in France. What colour and passion the Tartan Army brought the occasion. It was impossible to find a municipal fountain anywhere in the country that June that was not occupied by someone in a kilt.
Never mind being locked out from participation for the 10 months of the pandemic like their English counterparts, the Scots have been outside for 22 years. Imagine what joy and delight they will bring. Imagine the visceral charge in a Wembley properly packed once again. Imagine the splashing about in fountains. This is going to be fun.