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500 Miles

Scotland 2-0 Spain (UEFA European Championships Qualifiers)

What's the longest you've ever travelled to watch a single game of football? Never mind walking 500 miles, what about driving 600 miles during an 18-hour round-trip from Nottingham to Glasgow and back. A new British PB smashed and my first visit to the home of Scottish football to watch a European Championships qualifier between Scotland and Spain. But boy was it worth it!

It's a match I found difficult to turn down from the start, a stadium that I've wanted to tick off for a while now, a road trip north of the border and a chance to see some top international footballers play live.

Spain sunk Norway on Saturday in their opening qualifying match, starting a new era under Coach Luis de la Fuente with a 3-0 win. That was matched by Steve Clarke's Scotland against Cyprus, thanks to John McGinn and a couple from Scott McTominay, something had to give in this second match of the group stages for Euro 2024.

It's raining out. I'm packing a lunch for my journey, kiss the wife and dog goodbye and set off for ten am as I programme Hampden Park into my sat nav, expected arrival 3pm, I'm comfortable with heated seats on as I head north for the M1 before being told to join the M18.

I've got Simon Jordan and Jim White on the radio but can't take any more... I'm on the A1 as I play some Arctic Monkeys to relieve the stress from Jordan's high and mighty opinions of himself, the rather appropriate ‘scummy man’ comes on as I join the A66 crossing over the stunning Pennines where I notice a lovely looking parks pitch just outside Warcop to my left, eventually passing Penrith Town FC and it's equally idyllic back drop of hills and greenery on my right.

Onto the M6 I'm stopping off at Southwaite Services for a coffee and rather nice Cornish Pasty before passing Carlisle and Gretna into Scotland. Radio now turned back to TalkSport as they chat about tonight's match, I'm losing signal midst the rolling South Lanarkshire hills so put on some Paolo Nutini which I feel is appropriate as he's the only decent ‘youngish’ Scottish singer I know.

It's a wonderful drive up the A74 but after hours of fields and farmland, finally I see some life as a number of ugly high-rise flats appear on the horizon. The outer suburbs of Glasgow littered with unattractive buildings, although Edinburgh is the capital, the leader of industry in this nation is certainly this west coast portal city which isn't the most pleasing on the eye, but certainly pulls the purse strings as I pass signs for Hamilton and Motherwell ahead of approaching a number of factories and warehouses beside the motorway.

Celtic Park is up on the hill as I come off the M74 at junction 1A. Heading down the Aikenhead Road towards the stadium which looks small from the outside opposite an Asda and sports centre at the foot of Mount Florida, I eventually pull up on Carmunock Road and ask a steward if I can quickly 'nip in' to main entrance and get my ticket and parking pass supplied for me today, by UEFA.

The Venue

I'm walking through the car park a good four hours before kick-off as the police and stewarding teams gather together outside the adjacent home of Queens Park FC to take their orders for the day. I'm walking up the steps, into the main entrance, huge glass doors with a poster of Andy Robertson high up on the left, Rachel Corsie the women’s national team skipper on the right, entering at the main desk where I'm told to sit down and wait for my man from UEFA, Colin, as a bagpipe player is buttoning himself up ahead of loudly busting out a few practice tunes in the background.

After a bit of a wait, Colin greets me with a smile and kindly takes me from reception to show me my seat. Up the lift onto the gantry above the TV cameras, it's a magnificent view, much higher than I thought, much closer to the pitch than I had envisaged too. A real good, elevated position, rooftops of the houses appearing behind the sloped stadium ceiling under the grey skies, the word ‘Hampden’ emblazoned in white on slightly faded blue and red seating of the stand opposite.

Tickets and pass now in hand, back down the lift and Colin waved goodbye, I still need to go out and park my car, so I take a drive south and pull up on the Kings Park Avenue for a bite before heading back towards the ground as the crowds of supporters slowly start to appear. I’m in the purple car park, parking up before walking down the Aikenhead Road towards the venue and the same glass doors, the bagpipe player now posing for photos with fans.

“You know where you’re going” says the doorman, as I walk up with a flash of my lanyard to the lift onto level five, a quick wee and I’m seated a good hour and twenty minutes ahead of kick off, filling out the teams in my little black book as TVE start to set up in front of me, former Spurs and Sevilla striker Fernando Llorente is with them on presenting duty, looking all handsome in a roll neck and long jacket alongside his peers.

The Game

The teams walk out to the Hampden roar as Spain fans first, around a thousand or so in the left corner, hum to their National Anthem before Flower of Scotland is belted out to decibel levels I’ve never experienced previously. A magnificent rendition really whets the matchday appetite as I’m joined by a Slovakian called Peter who’s on Scouting duty with me, he’s literally only the second turned up, but he’s brought a laptop with him to air the game on which makes my binoculars redundant, he’s out with his camera phone standing up, taking it all in, loving it here and chatting away as I’m trying to work out which team has won the toss.

Scotland start on the front foot, from minute one they’re brilliant. I admit to Peter ‘I expected a Spain precession’, pass, pass, pass everything nice and slow as the home team stood off their much better opposition and watch them play tiki-taka between themselves, but not so tonight, the Spanish have made eight changes from their win over Norway and it’s a risky strategy from their novice Coach. Lyndon Dykes and Scott McTominay two of three notable changes for Scotland, Dykes in particular leads from the front, he’s closing down and harassing Spanish defenders but it’s in possession, where Scotland impress me, they’ve more of the early percentage and some of their one touch football is really on the pulse.

Just seven minutes gone and Pedro Porro is playing with danger near his own by-line, he slips over and Andy Robertson nicks the ball, pulling back to the onrushing McTominay who blasts low and through Kepa to send the home crowd wild.

Scotland are really good value and Spain don’t know what’s hit them. Porro is playing up on the far side, an altercation see’s him booked and thereafter the boos every time he gets the ball are deafening. Joselu crashes a bar with a header and Porro tries his luck from range to be denied by Gunn, but at the other end, better chances for Christie, then Dykes on half time, should really have had the home side two up.

The Score

Spain make two changes at the break, Porro who’s on a tightrope and has the Scottish fans ready to pounce on his every move, is replaced by Dani Carvajal, as the much disappointing Oyarzabal is also subbed for Nico Williams.

Little change in the way the games going though, Scotland again on the front foot, Kieran Tierney is dancing down the left, he’s shown Carvajal a clean pair of heels and crosses in low, the ball falls to McTominay who’s at it again! Four in two games, he’s smashed another shot low past Kepa and the fans again go wild… It’s only then, I start to believe I’m witnessing a very special night at Hampden.

That goal gives the cushion that Scotland need, they can sit back and defend knowing that one slip up won’t be so costly, but every time a ball goes into the box, it’s headed, hooked or blocked away by the superb Ryan Porteous and Grant Hanley. They’ll be no slip ups tonight. Spain are slowly running out of ideas. I wonder if they had any in the first place?

The pass masters are beginning to kick simple passes into touch. Jeers and cheers everytime they make a mistake, which is often, they make endless subs, to no avail, Williams their only bright spark down the right, but Scotland contain him very well, McGinn hits the bar with an audacious free kick, and late on, as the party has already started, substitute Lawrence Shankland could have added a third after Callum McGregor darts off like Liz McColgan past endless Spanish players who by now are helpless in trying to overturn the outcome.

Enter ‘freed from desire’ as the Tartan army sing ‘Scotland on Fire’ the venue is literally, bouncing, a Richter Scale 5 as the Referee blows his whistle to screams of joy. A party which inevitably ends with a little bit of the Proclaimers, of course. Myself and Peter stood in the venue applauding, smiling, one of the great nights in Scottish football history.

The Stars

Two goal hero Scott McTominay will rightly take acclaim, but this was a real team performance where every one of those boys in dark blue were heroic beyond their capabilities to ensure the result of a generation was pulled off. Lyndon Dykes was fabulous up front, hard working and a real menace to the Spaniard centre half pairing, John McGinn in midfield tireless with Callum McGregor showing glimpses of quality with real good engine, in defence, Porteous and Hanley were superb, Tierney and Robertson clearly world class, I particularly like the look of Aaron Hickey who’s a recent signing at Brentford from Bologna where he did well in Serie A. The former Hearts right back still only 20, forming into a very good footballer indeed.

For Spain, considerable disappointment. I actually thought Pedro Porro looked a very talented player despite it clearly not being his night, Yeremy Pino shown glimpses of good footwork but on first viewing, I really wanted to see more from him, Joselu with service and balls pumped into the box, might have posed more of a handful, but that’s not simply the Spanish way.

I actually remember watching Nico Williams in the World Cup and thinking that they should perhaps base their football now, around players like this, Williams was direct from the bench, willing to take opponents on, wanting to make things happen, with a trick, and at twenty is the future, along with the likes of Pedri, Gavi and Olmo, who when fit, all need to play.

The Verdict

For the first time since 1984 (ironically, I still have the matchday programme of that famous game somewhere) Scotland beat Spain at Hampden Park. The once in a generation result might tell you more of what it means to the home nation as a one off, celebrating a win in the rain against a three-time European champion and one time conqueror of the world, outplayed on the night, it might also suggest that Spain, and their own golden generation, is now a thing of the past.

But less about Spain, can Scotland back up their own stunning performance by topping the group? By qualifying for the Euros in 2024 when their round robin is complete? Well they have Norway and Georgia in June next, and staying undefeated against those two, will give them a batting chance, but knowing Scotland, results against the lesser nations, are often easier said than done. It's those matches they'll eventually be judged upon as they look to reach a points tally target (twenty or near will do) to take them through, but in the meantime, ahead of those showdowns in the summer, why not long celebrate this amazing victory, six points from two games and in beating Spain, because it's now in Scotland's hands to lose!

The Teams

Scotland: Angus Gunn, Aaron Hickey (Nathan Patterson 82), Ryan Porteous, Grant Hanley, Kieran Tierney (Liam Cooper 75), Andy Robertson, John McGinn (Lewis Ferguson 82), Scott McTominay, Callum McGregor, Ryan Christie (Kenny McLean 75), Lyndon Dykes (Lawrence Shankland 89).

Spain: Kepa Arrizabalaga, Pedro Porro (Dani Carvajal 46), David Garcia, Inigo Martinez, Jose Gaya, Rodri, Mikel Merino (Iago Aspas 57), Mikel Oyarzabal (Nico Williams 46), Dani Ceballos (Gavi 79), Yeremi Pino, Joselu (Borja Iglesias 66).

7:45pm Kick Off. Tuesday 28th March 2023, Hampden Park, Glasgow (47,976)

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