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Is this what it has come to?

by Matt Carter, The Scotsman

It seems such a long time ago, a different era perhaps, that Gary Caldwell stuck out a leg and diverted Paul Hartley's corner beyond a stunned Grégory Coupet, sending a packed Hampden into absolute delirium. That victory placed Scotland (albeit temporarily) atop their qualifying group for Euro 2008 and gave the nation a genuine hope that, for the first time since, fittingly, France '98, they could be searching for their passports and heading to a major tournament.

Of course that campaign ended in glorious failure, but at least there was some glory to be had. Since Walter Smith and Alex McLeish restored pride to the dark blue shirt, we've had to suffer through the misguided, squad-dividing times of George Burley, and now this. Rather than place their trust in any of the respectable men linked with the job – Mark McGhee, Craig Levein or even a return for Sir Walter of Smith – we get a who's name is more likely to incapacitate opponents through laughter than fear of playing his side.

Dick Smallberries. An international footballer he may be, but he was capped only twice, and both came under the stewardship of Hans-Hubert Vogts, so can be immediately discounted as having any worth whatsoever....

I quietly picked up my lighter and set fire to the corner of the newspaper, watching in satisfaction as it burned through the article, only finally dropping it into the metal bin at my feet when the first flame licked my fingers.

The fact that the only thing they had to curse me with was my name actually inspired me with a strange confidence. I was convinced that Scotland had the young talent coming through the system to not only get to a major tournament, but to finally get the monkey off our back about never having got past the group stage. In time I would make them believe in me.

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Author's note: Inspired by Elrithral's superb tale, It's not Terry's, it's mine, I have decided to take on an international journeyman career. I'm not keeping myself to the 'one tournament per team' rule that El gave himself, I'll move on when it feels natural, but my aim is to manage many nations in many federations around the world. I figured I'd give myself a tough start and go with Scotland.

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June 2010

Goalkeepers

Craig Gordon (Sunderland), David Marshall (Cardiff), Allan McGregor (Rangers)

Defenders

Paul Dixon (Dundee Utd), Danny Wilson (Rangers), Mark Reynolds (Motherwell), Christophe Berra (Wolves), Gary Caldwell (Wigan), Shaun Hutchison (Motherwell), Garry Kenneth (Dundee Utd), Alan Hutton (Sunderland), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Lee Wallace (Hearts)

Midfielders

Graham Dorrans (West Brom), Darren Fletcher (Manchester Utd), James McArthur (Hamilton), Kevin Thomson (Rangers), Scott Brown (Celtic), James Morrison (West Brom), Steven Naismith (Rangers), Andrew Driver (Hearts), James McFadden (Birmingham)

Strikers

John Fleck (Rangers), Steven Fletcher (Burnley), Kris Boyd (Rangers), Leigh Griffiths (Dundee)

***

Scotland vs. Algeria

International Friendly, Hampden Park

The biggest name that the media could find to whine about having been ditched from the squad was Kenny Miller, and if he was all they could beat me with, I was in a good position. I was slightly disappointed that Andy Carroll ad rejected an offer to commit himself to Scotland despite having played for our U-21 side three times, but it did give me the chance to see what Leigh Griffiths could do.

With no Stephen McManus, a new captain was needed, and was found in the shape of Rangers' Kevin Thomson, with Darren Fletcher named as his vice captain. With those two set to form part of my (hopefully) successful midfield trio, I was happy to give them the extra responsibility.

The U-21s showed us how to do things the night before our game, beating their Algerian counterparts 3-0 at Hampden, thanks largely to two goals from David Goodwillie, who had come very close to winning selection for the senior squad.

I was determined to make this a new start for Scotland, so Whittaker, Kenneth, Wilson, Reynolds and Driver all came in to make their débuts from the start, whilst Griffiths, Dorrans, McArthur, Hutchison and Fleck were all waiting for the chance to get their first cap from the bench.

We knew it would be a tough game with Algeria preparing for their World Cup campaign, and we got an early warning of that with Nadir Belhadj bombing up and down the left flank, causing Whittaker some problems. It was us who came closest to scoring in the opening twenty minutes, however, Danny Wilson's header from Morrison's corner just shaving the top of the crossbar.

The visitors thought they had taken the lead in the twenty third minute when Karim Matmour fired past Gordon having been put clear by Yazid Mansouri, but the assistant referee (or whatever they're called this week) but his celebrations short with a swift raising of his flag.

Belhadj appeared to have little turbo boosters in his boots, such was the ease with which he accelerated past Whittaker time after time, but thankfully his delivery was not of the same quality, often way overhit out for a throw in on the other side of the pitch.

Half time came and went without score, and we sent three new faces out for the second period, with Alan Hutton given strict instructions to show Belhadj inside onto his right foot and let him prove that it was good for something other than simply preventing him from falling over.

Our only real threat was coming from set pieces, a situation that I wasn't best pleased with, and became even less so when Algeria took the lead through exactly that manner.

Craig Gordon appeared to have something of a brain fade as he came to try and collect Karim Ziani's corner, but got nowhere near it, beaten to the ball by Madjid Bougherra, who flicked it on towards the back post. We had two men protecting that area, but both were beaten by Rafik Djebbour's leap, the substitute – who'd only been on the pitch five minutes – wheeling away with his arm aloft as he nodded the ball into the empty net.

It was a disappointing defeat, mostly due to the distinct lack of threat we mustered in an attacking sense, and served as a mark of just how big a task I had ahead of me.

Scotland 0 – 1 Algeria

(Djebbour, 72)

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September 2010

Goalkeepers

Craig Gordon (Sunderland), David Marshall (Cardiff), Allan McGregor (Rangers)

Defenders

Paul Dixon (Dundee Utd), Danny Wilson (Rangers), Mark Reynolds (Motherwell), Christophe Berra (Wolves), Gary Caldwell (Wigan), Shaun Hutchison (Motherwell), Garry Kenneth (Dundee Utd), Alan Hutton (Tottenham), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Lee Wallace (Hearts)

Midfielders

Graham Dorrans (Wolves), Darren Fletcher (Manchester Utd), James McArthur (Hamilton), Kevin Thomson (Rangers), Scott Robertson (Dundee Utd), Ross McCormack (Cardiff City), Steven Naismith (Rangers), Andrew Driver (Hearts), James McFadden (Birmingham)

Strikers

John Fleck (Rangers), Kris Boyd (Rangers), David Clarkson (Bristol City), Leigh Griffiths (Dundee)

Unavailable

Scott Brown (Celtic), James Morrison (West Brom), Steven Fletcher (Burnley)

***

Scotland vs. Nigeria

International Friendly, Hampden Park

I was happy to have another friendly to work on our game before we faced the double header from hell to open our qualifying campaign. We were forced into a late change in the squad, however, when Andy Driver pulled out with a knee injury, Robert Snodgrass of Leeds called up to take his place.

Whilst we played our friendly, both the Czech Republic and Spain would be getting their qualifying campaigns off to a good start as they faced Liechtenstein and Lithuania respectively. Quite frankly I couldn't see any way that we were going to threaten those as the top two in the group, we just had to make sure that we took six points from each of Liechtenstein and Lithuania, finished solidly in 3rd place and hope for a better draw for World Cup 2014.

We tried a different approach for the Nigeria game, as our midfield trio had failed to control the game against Algeria, I wanted to see if getting the ball wide, playing a fast tempo, distinctly 'British' 4-4-2 would see us have any more impact on the game.

If anything I just wanted to avoid defeat, as I felt that four losses in my opening four games would have me rated as a worse Scotland manager than Burley, and closing in fast on the awesome levels of awfulness achieved by Berti McVogts.

Nigeria had failed to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa, and were determined to show why that was an aberration, rather than a mark of their quality. Chinedu Obasi should have put them in front in the sixth minute, but unmarked just ten yards from goal he fired his shot straight at Craig Gordon.

Of course, it would have helped if we hadn't insisted on continually passing the ball straight to their midfield, but evidently Christophe Berra was unused to the principle of finding a teammate. He stuck the ball straight into John Obi Mikel's path, and within fifteen seconds the ball was in the back of our net, Kalu Uche cutting in from the left and firing across Gordon into the bottom corner.

It took just under two hours of football under my stewardship for us to actually put a proper attack together, but when we did the results were very encouraging. Thomson and Wallace exchanged passes down the left, the former eventually playing a ball into Griffiths on the edge of the box. The Dundee man, who had recently taken his first steps in the SPL world, turned Jospeh Yobo, who had got too tight and rammed home a shot past Vincent Enyeama.

The game was now far more open than any international level match should be, which was good for the fans but less so for my nerves. Christophe Berra managed to ensure that he would be dropped for the Spain game – and probably hauled off at half time in this one – when, as Nigeria broke quickly, he wrestled Obasi to the ground, giving away a stonewall penalty. Yakubu lined up the spot kick and sent Gordon the wrong way, nestling the ball comfortably in the net.

We managed to craft our a couple of chances on the counter attack in what remained of the half, Kris Boyd twice firing wide, but for the most part we were more concerned with stopping wave after wave of Nigerian attack.

A few harsh words were spoken during the break, and we managed to gain some measure of control over the match at the beginning of the second half. Unfortunately, Kris Boyd still couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo, but on the couple of occasions that Griffiths found himself with an opportunity, the youngster looked dangerous, forcing Enyeama into good saves.

Now it was Nigeria who were having to live on the counter, but with the searing pace of their attacking players, they were doing it to good effect. Three times before the seventieth minute Craig Gordon had to come to our rescue, each time to parry away shots from Obasi, who seemed only marginally more accurate in his shooting than Boyd.

We made the last of our changes with quarter of an hour left, and they very nearly payed immediate dividends, with Reynolds playing an incisive pass to Clarkson, who turned his marker and forced Enyeama into another smart save.

Certainly the game had been more encouraging for us in an attacking sense, and the players had certainly looked more comfortable with the system, but the defence was starting to become a big worry. If we could fix our issues there – mainly a combination of a crippling lack of pace and abominable lack of talent – then we might yet have a decent side, but I wasn't holding my breath.

Scotland 1 – 2 Nigeria

(Uche 13, Griffiths 20, Yakubu (pen) 27)

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Welcome to FMS, Terk. New writers are always encouraged to try and write ahead so that the story continues even when you don't feel like writing/playing. :D

Honoured to get such advice from an experienced forum member like yourself. I know I'm new here but I'll try to follow it :thup:

Friendly hint, Terkleton ... might want to proofread your first headline.

Do you want to know the depressing thing? I did proofread it. Evidently I simply can't read :(

Thanks for all the kindly welcomes, this looks like a nice forum, I might have to stick around. For being so nice you can have another post today, after that I'm planning one a day to keep a stock of already written stuff in reserve. See, Gav, I'm already learning :cool:

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October 2010

Goalkeepers

Craig Gordon (Sunderland), David Marshall (Cardiff), Allan McGregor (Rangers)

Defenders

Paul Dixon (Dundee Utd), Danny Wilson (Rangers), Mark Reynolds (Motherwell), Christophe Berra (Wolves), Gary Caldwell (Wigan), Garry Kenneth (Dundee Utd), Alan Hutton (Tottenham), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Lee Wallace (Hearts)

Midfielders

Graham Dorrans (Wolves), Darren Fletcher (Manchester Utd), James McArthur (Hamilton), Kevin Thomson (Rangers), Don Cowie (Watford), Steven Naismith (Rangers), David Templeton (Hearts), Andrew Driver (Hearts), James McFadden (Birmingham)

Strikers

John Fleck (Rangers), Steven Fletcher (Burnley), Kris Boyd (Rangers), David Clarkson (Bristol City), Leigh Griffiths (Dundee)

***

Spain vs. Scotland

Euro 2012 Qualifier (1/8), Vicente Calderón

Spain had begun their campaign with a 2-0 win in Vilnius, Cazorla and Torres finding the net in what was, frankly, an underwhelming performance from the European and World champions. It was plenty enough for the points, however, and no doubt they'd have three more after they were done with us. I was, to be perfectly honest, sh*tting myself.

We stuck with the 4-4-2, which was almost certainly going to end up being a horrible mistake, but I was determined that, should we somehow manage to fashion a chance, we'd have players in the right areas of the pitch to try and take advantage.

Spain stuck with their 4-1-4-1 formation, and it probably said everything about the difference between the two sides when you looked at their bench. Reina, Marchena, Fàbregas, Alonso, Silva, Villa and Torres. The game hadn't even kicked off and I needed yet another change of underwear.

There was, frankly, little point in us pressing them high up the field, getting out of position and then watching as they broke into space behind. So we massed ranks in our own half, made ourselves difficult to break down and then broke with speed on the few occasions we got hold of the ball.

It was a plan that almost came perfectly to fruition in the 25th minute, having frustrated Spain and restricted them to nothing but long shots, the ball was clear out to Andy Driver on the left flank. He raced into the space that Sergio Ramos had vacated before cutting the ball back to Darren Fletcher on the edge of the box.

The Man Utd man put his foot through the ball and watched as it thundered back off the cross bar. It was quickly worked back out to Driver, however, but his inch perfect cross from the left was headed straight into Casillas' hands by Leigh Griffiths.

We were seeing more of the ball than I'd anticipated as Spain grew increasingly frustrated, and in the 39th minute, just moments after Raúl had put a free header into Gordon's arms, we managed the unthinkable.

David Templeton, the Hearts winger making his début, took a pass from Kevin Thomson in his stride and set off at his astronomical pace towards goal. As Gerard Piqué came out to close him down, he poked the ball beyond the Barça centre back and through to Steven Fletcher. The Burnley striker, who had netted seventeen goals in their relegation campaign and already had seven strikes this season, quickly got it under control, turned and fired past a static Casillas, silencing the Madrid crowd in one fell swoop.

It was a dream state that didn't last long, four minutes and seven seconds to be precise, as Raúl's shot from Albert Riera's cutback was blocked by Garry Kenneth, but fell neatly into Jesús Navas' path, the Sevilla winger making no mistake as he rolled his shot under Craig Gordon.

Just to ensure that I was in no danger of enjoying myself, Spain sent on Fernando Torres in place of Marcos Senna for the second half, with my only hope that one of the Liverpool striker's various ailments sent him from the pitch squealing in agony as soon as possible.

Torres fired a warning of just what he was about – as if we didn't already know – with just twenty-seven seconds of the second half gone, getting on the end of Riera's cross and diverting the ball goalwards, though thankfully Gordon was positioned well enough to gather the ball comfortably.

Fernando Navarro, the Spanish left back, was certainly being troubled by Templeton's pace, and on more than one occasion he took an agricultural approach to stopping our little Billy Whizz. It was from a free kick won in this fashion that we should have been celebrating our second goal, Driver's delivery finding substitute Kris Boyd unmarked at the back post, but the Rangers man could do nothing but direct his header straight at Casillas.

Torres was proving to be a menace to our defence on a whole different level to that which the hosts had provided in the first half, and every time he got on the ball he looked like scoring, fashioning another two chances for himself in the first ten minutes of the half, though on both occasions Gordon stood tall and made good saves.

The way in which Spain eventually took the lead, in the 63rd minute, was particularly galling, not in terms of the manner in which it was scored, but in who provided the scoring pass.

Navarro should not have been on the field to give that pass, having elbowed Templeton in the face just three minutes before hand, but Croatian referee Ivan Bebek felt that a yellow card would suffice. He got a volley of abuse from our bench then, and an even bigger one when Navarro played Riera in and the Liverpool winger arrowed his shot beyond Gordon's reach. I had no problem being beaten by a better side, but that left a bitter taste in the mouth.

It then seemed simply a matter of how many Spain would have the time to score before the final whistle, and the shots came raining down on Gordon's goal, but for the most part he was thoroughly solid. He was beaten by a curling shot from Xabi Alonso, but that pinged back into play off the post and we lived to fight again.

As the clock ticked into the final ten minutes, we even managed to go on the attack again, Templeton continuing his torment of Navarro, and twice crossing for Kris Boyd. The first of the big striker's headers ballooned over the bar, but the second was perfectly on target, forcing Casillas into the sort of fingertip save that showed just why he's rated as the best in the world.

We had to play the last few minutes with only ten men as Boyd was forced off with an injury and, having made all three of my substitutions, I had no option but to leave Steven Fletcher up front on his own. We saw the game out to the final whistle, and I was happy with the effort that had been put in, but when all said and done we had come away with nothing whilst the Czech Republic and Spain sat six points ahead of us.

If we were to have even the slightest hint of a chance of second place then we had to beat the Czech Republic come Wednesday.

Spain 2 – 1 Scotland

(S.Fletcher 38, Navas 43, Riera 63)

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Just to ensure that I was in no danger of enjoying myself

That's excellent. :)

But what you need as a new writer are people who will comment on your thread. If it's popular, you might want to write more. So you might want to ask for comments just in case.

< ducking >

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That's a good point, Mr 10-3, Sir. As a new guy around here I need validation, so if people don't post in my story and tell me how awesome I am then I'll storm off and never darken this forum again.

And El, you know I respect your Dick. Hell, I'd even vote for your Dick, but my Dick will be the best Dick :p

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Scotland vs. Czech Republic

Euro 2012 Qualifier (2/8), Hampden Park

There was some comforting news on the even of our crunch match against the Czech Republic, not only had our U-21 side succumbed 3-2 on aggregate to Slovenia in the European Championship qualifying play-off, but the latest World Rankings were released. Under my stewardship, Scotland had plummeted from 41st to 66th; we were now ranked below The Congo, Burkina Faso, Saudi Arabia and Wales.

The Czech Republic, whilst far from the heights of the team of 1996 (Berger, Nedvĕd and Poborský, what a team) were still more than thirty places above us, and with six points already on the board – thanks to wins over Liechtenstein and Lithuania – they had the chance to all but put us out of our misery should they claim the victory that everyone expected at Hampden.

There were three changes to our starting line up as Steven Whittaker stood in for Alan Hutton, Mark Reynolds came in for Garry Kenneth at centre back and James McFadden replaced the tired Andy Driver on the left wing. Kris Boyd hadn't sufficiently recovered from his dead leg, so David Clarkson took his place on the bench, whilst youngster John Fleck covered the place that McFadden had vacated amongst the substitutes.

We stuck with the assumption that we'd see less of the ball than our opponents, and therefore the counter attacking plan, even though we were now in front of our own fans. We'd carved out plenty of chances in Spain, and we had to be realistic about our talents against those we faced, so we'd wait for one of the 'whipping boys' to turn up before we went gung-ho on the attack.

Much to my surprise, we spent most of the first half hour on the front foot as the Czech side seemed to have come with little intent to attack, or even to counter attack. Steven Fletcher had a couple of early sighters from distance, but it was in the 27th minute that we came closest to taking the lead. Leigh Griffiths continued to impress at international level, working a good build up with the two Fletchers before arcing a shot out of Petr Cech's reach. Unfortunately it hit the inside of the post and bounced across the goal line, allowing Tomás Sivok to clear.

We were, for the most part, struggling to break down the massed ranks of Czech defence (and for about the only time in my life I got to feel what it would be like to be Spain's manager) but on the stroke of half time we finally got through.

Darren Fletcher won the ball in midfield and we attacked at pace, Thomson finding Steven Fletcher, who had dropped deep off his marker and in turn played a pass to McFadden. The Birmingham winger had stolen a march on Zdenek Grygera and had a clear sight of goal as he took the pass in his stride, and he needed no second invitation to smash his shot past Petr Cech for the opening goal.

The Czechs had clearly suffered some strategically placed rockets at half time and came out finally looking like a decent attacking side. Of course, that was exactly what I hadn't wanted to see, but I breathed a sigh of relief when Craig Gordon turned Milan Baros' shot round the post in the 48th minute, despite it looking easier for the former Liverpool and Aston Villa striker to score.

Within ten minutes of the restart we were already in a situation where we were hanging onto our lead for dear life in the face of continued Czech attack. I had hoped that we'd still look dangerous on the counter attack, but seemed to be infected with the same disease we'd suffered against Nigeria and could do little other than keep giving the ball back to the visiting side.

Given the number of chances that the Czech Republic were creating, the law of probability said that one of them had to be put away sooner than later, but they couldn't get anything on target, and with nineteen minutes left we made them pay.

Ten minutes earlier I had thrown on my final two substitutes (having sent Don Cowie on for the tired David Templeton at half time) and it was the two new faces who combined to surely put the points in the bag. Graham Dorrans stole the ball off Jon Polak thirty yards from the Czech midfielder's goal, and immediately spotted David Clarkson's run. His quick pass caught the visiting defence in no man's land and Clarkson took a touch to steady himself before firing low past Cech for his second international goal.

The Czech Republic, now required to pretty much throw everyone forward, almost gifted us a third when they allowed Don Cowie to make a diagonal run to meet Clarkson's pass, and it was only a smart save from Cech that kept them even slightly in the game. That, however, seemed to deter them from making any further efforts to try and salvage the game and they sat back, seemingly content to simply keep the damage to their goal difference down.

The celebrations went pretty long into the night – I had seriously feared for my job had we lost – and we had every right to as the victory put us in the frame for second place. Assuming that we beat the two others in the group and lost in Prague, it was going to come down to our respective results against Spain. As I sat nursing a whisky in the small hours, I began to wonder just how costly that Navarro-inspired winner in Madrid might prove to be.

Scotland 2 – 0 Czech Republic

(McFadden 45, Clarkson 71)

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Cheers, Burgess :) You'll get used to all the Dick business :D

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November 2010

Goalkeepers

Craig Gordon (Sunderland), David Marshall (Cardiff), Allan McGregor (Rangers)

Defenders

Paul Dixon (Dundee Utd), Danny Wilson (Rangers), Mark Reynolds (Motherwell), Christophe Berra (Wolves), Gary Caldwell (Wigan), Alex Pearce (Reading), Alan Hutton (Tottenham), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Lee Wallace (Hearts)

Midfielders

Graham Dorrans (Wolves), Darren Fletcher (Manchester Utd), James McArthur (Hamilton), Kevin Thomson (Rangers), David Wotherspoon (Hibernian), Steven Naismith (Rangers), David Templeton (Hearts), Andrew Driver (Hearts), James McFadden (Birmingham)

Strikers

John Fleck (Rangers), Steven Fletcher (Burnley), Kris Boyd (Rangers), David Clarkson (Bristol City), Leigh Griffiths (Dundee)

***

Greece vs. Scotland

International Friendly, Giorgios Karaiskakis

The win over the Czech Republic had boosted us back into the top fifty in the world rankings, though the big story was the forty places climbed by San Marino after their frankly unbelievable 0-0 draw with the Dutch in Amsterdam.

With the absolute need to get a win on the board removed for a brief, wonderful moment, I decided to go with an inexperienced line up, with Alex Pearce and David Wotherspoon making their débuts and just thirty-six caps in total between the other nine players.

The team was still clearly full of confidence from the last game, and we should have taken the lead in the fourth minute when Griffiths broke clear down the left and crossed for Clarkson, but his header was tipped over the bar by Alexandros Tzorvas.

I had worried beforehand about some of the Greek players, namely Sotiris Ninis, the talented young midfielder, but he was being starved of possession and we seemed very much in control. We made that control pay in the 21st minute with a lovely move, Dorrans, Wotherspoon and Clarkson combining to play Griffiths clear, and the Dundee man easily shot beyond Tzorvas.

Griffiths was proving a real handful for the Greek defence and could have had a second just three minutes later when he turned Sotirios Kyrgiakos and fired just wide of the post. I really wanted the second goal that our domination deserved, but as I urged the boys forward we got hit with a classic counter attack.

I should have probably seen it coming, but with two passes Katsouranis and Karagounis had ripped through our defence and Dimitris Salpingidis was one-on-one with Allan McGregor. The Rangers 'keeper stood up to him, but Salpingidis slid the ball to his right and into the corner of the net.

The equaliser clearly shook us, but that was no excuse for the second that we conceded on the half hour. Tzorvas leathered a free kick deep into our half, it should have been a simple clearance for the defence, but Danny Wilson completely misjudged it and watched in horror as it bounced over him and straight into the path of Salpingidis, who had gambled on just such a mistake, and in a carbon copy of his first goal, slid the ball to McGregor's right and into the net.

The Greeks were now passing round us at will, as if we were mere statues on the pitch, and should have had a third on forty minutes when Ninis played a lovely ball to Katsouranis, but he got underneath his shot and lofted it over the crossbar.

We regathered ourselves during the half time break and came out for the second period looking a little more composed and more like the side we had been in the first twenty five minutes. We even crafted two early chances to restore parity in the scoreline, but Tzorvas saved well first from Griffiths before getting a good block in on Clarkson's effort.

Clarkson again came close on sixty five minutes – with what would be his final contribution to the game – taking Wotherspoon's cutback, setting himself with a touch and then firing goalwards, only to see it once again parried by the Greek goalkeeper.

We finally did get our thoroughly deserved equaliser in the 72nd minute. Good build up play seemed to have been wasted when Griffiths and Steven Fletcher conspired between them to give the ball away, but James McArthur won it back quickly, playing in Griffiths who made no mistake this time, his first time shot past Tzorvas before he knew it.

At the time we looked like the only side who were going to go on and win the game, which inevitably meant that we lost it. The defensive concentration that we'd exhibited against both Spain and the Czech Republic had completely deserted us, as Alan Hutton was caught in possession and the ball was played in to Theofanis Gekas, who moved the ball out of his feet and then fired past McGregor.

We very nearly pillaged a draw in the 93rd minute when Steven Fletcher's low, rasping drive from twenty five yards was palmed away by Tzorvas, but when all said and done we had no one but ourselves to blame for the idiotic way in which we'd conceded two of the goals, an in doing so thrown away the game.

Greece 3 – 2 Scotland

(Griffiths 21, 72, Salpingidis 27, 30, Gekas 81)

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cf2, I can assure you it is big and it is clever, and most importantly it's funny :D

----------------------------------------------------------------------

February 2011

Goalkeepers

Craig Gordon (Sunderland), David Marshall (Cardiff City), Allan McGregor (Rangers)

Defenders

Paul Dixon (Dundee Utd), Danny Wilson (Rangers), Mark Reynolds (Motherwell), Christophe Berra (Wolves), Gary Caldwell (Wigan), Garry Kenneth (Dundee Utd), Alan Hutton (Tottenham), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Lee Wallace (Hearts)

Midfielders

Graham Dorrans (Wolves), James McArthur (Hamilton), Jamie Ness (Rangers), David Wotherspoon (Hibernian), Scott Brown (Celtic), Robert Snodgrass (Leeds), Steven Naismith (Rangers), David Templeton (Hearts), James McFadden (Birmingham)

Strikers

John Fleck (Rangers), David Clarkson (Bristol City), Steven Fletcher (Burnley), Kris Boyd (Rangers), Leigh Griffiths (Dundee)

Unavailable

Andrew Driver (Hearts), Darren Fletcher (Manchester Utd, suspension), Kevin Thomson (Rangers, suspension)

***

Ireland vs. Scotland

Four Associations Tournament (1/3), Lansdowne Road

Initially I hadn't been overly enamoured with the idea of this tournament, but when it then struck me as a chance to get our players used to winning something, it took on a much more important place in my thoughts. We were without Darren Fletcher and Kevin Thomson, both of whom had picked up yellow cards in the games against Spain and the Czech Republic, which meant they had to sit out a competitive game.

That gave me the chance to put some pressure on Graham Dorrans' shoulders and see how the technically gifted midfielder dealt with it. It also allowed me to have a look at Jamie Ness, the young Rangers midfielder who had impressed since the turn of the year with some very good performances in the SPL. Gary Caldwell took over the captaincy in the absence of my two midfielders.

The tournament had started the previous evening with Northern Ireland grabbing a 1-0 win over Wales at Thomond Park in Limerick. A ground more used to hosting the electric atmosphere of Munster Rugby Club, it had been packed to the rafters for the game, which saw Warren Feeney score the only goal from the penalty spot in the 82nd minute. With each side playing three games, a good start was imperative, and we knew we had to take at least a point from our trip to Lansdowne (I don't think I'll ever get used to calling it the Aviva Stadium).

Both sides lined up with variations on a 4-4-2 formation, Trappattoni deciding to sit his two central midfielders deep in protection of his back four whilst we pushed our wingers high up the pitch to put pressure on their fullbacks.

It was the home side who drew first blood, some non-threatening passing between Marc Wilson and Robbie Keane seemingly under control, until the latter moved the ball inside to Andy Keogh, who turned quickly and hit a shot from twenty five yards that burned a path into the top corner.

Our defenders didn't quite know what had happened, and our fans fell silent in one end of the ground, but then were soon pepped up when Richard Dunne misjudged the flight of a lofted through ball and allowed it to bounce through to Griffiths. The Dundee man should perhaps have done better with his chance, but at least he made Shay Given work for his save and got the fans singing again.

We were beginning to get some joy down the right flank as, once again, David Templeton's pace was causing problems. John O'Shea took the route one expected of him, clattering the Hearts man to the floor on more than one occasion, which meant free kicks in dangerous positions, although our delivery was not what it might have been.

By the twenty-fifth minute it had got to the point where Shay Given must have felt he was in a training session, such was the regularity with which shots were raining in on his goal. First he pulled off a wonderful double save to deny Steven Fletcher, then when Scott Brown got across his marker to meet Griffiths' corner, the Man City 'keeper got down quickly to his left and pushed the ball back out into play.

The Irish break always remained a threat, however, and after Keogh had given us warning by firing over from thirty yards, we suffered a hammer blow right to the stomach. A nice attack had been building on the edge of the Irish penalty area, but Dunne won the ball back and Wilson hammered it upfield.

Robbie Keane claimed possession and skipped past Caldwell's tackle, racing into the penalty area where he was battered to the ground by Mark Reynolds. The penalty was the only decision and Keane placed his effort right in the corner, giving Gordon no chance.

Despite the deficit we continued to play the better football and carve out the better chances, but still Given was intent on not being beaten. Both Dorrans and Fletcher saw good strikes palmed away, and to rub salt into our gaping wounds, Keane scored a truly magnificent third for the home nation, volleying a bouncing ball into the top corner of Gordon's net from twenty-five yards when there was little else on.

The ridiculous rule to allow only three substitutes on the bench saw my options to change things limited, so I decided to leave the same players on the pitch and simply demand far better from them. I knew that any points were out of the question, but I was determined that we wouldn't allow them quite so much space and time to shoot as we had in the first half.

As I would have done had we been leading by three goals at half time, Ireland came out with an attitude of 'what we have, we hold' in the second half and made it difficult for us to get any sort of sight of goal. They were happy for us to have all the possession we wanted in midfield, and we failed to break down their massed ranks until the 61st minute.

I'd been forced to encourage my players to shoot from distance – something I normally try to avoid as I hate the sight of shots endlessly dipping their way into the upper rows of the stands – but it was the only way to try and draw at least a few Irish defenders out. And it worked a treat, Steven Fletcher's curling shot palmed out by Given, but only to the feet of Leigh Griffiths, who controlled the ball quickly and slotted it into the corner of the net from ten yards.

Any thoughts that we had of a massive and impressive comeback, however, lasted exactly two minutes and thirty-two seconds. Once again we stood of them in defence as they came forward, Keane finding Keogh, who turned on the edge of the box and hammered a shot into the top corner. Such blatant disregard of the instructions I had given was absolutely infuriating, and ensured that my search for a decent centre back partnership would have to continue.

We continued to urge the players forward, more in an attempt to limit the damage to our goal difference than anything else, but their spirit was well and truly broken, and Ireland were more than happy to simply play out time to the final whistle. Rarely had I seen a side so dominant in possession and chances come away with such a resounding beating, and the media had no question as to where the blame lay; the naïvety of my tactical plan.

Ireland 4 – 1 Scotland

(Keogh 7, 63, Keane (pen) 32, 45+1, Griffiths 61)

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March 2011

Goalkeepers

Craig Gordon (Sunderland), David Marshall (Cardiff City), Allan McGregor (Rangers)

Defenders

Paul Dixon (Dundee Utd), Danny Wilson (Rangers), Mark Reynolds (Motherwell), Christophe Berra (Wolves), Shaun Hutchison (Motherwell), Garry Kenneth (Dundee Utd), Alan Hutton (Tottenham), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Lee Wallace (Hearts)

Midfielders

Graham Dorrans (Wolves), James McArthur (Hamilton), Darren Fletcher (Manchester United), Kevin Thomson (Rangers), David Wotherspoon (Hibernian), Robert Snodgrass (Leeds), Steven Naismith (Rangers), David Templeton (Hearts), James McFadden (Birmingham)

Strikers

John Fleck (Rangers), David Clarkson (Bristol City), Steven Fletcher (Burnley), Kris Boyd (Rangers), Leigh Griffiths (Dundee)

Unavailable

Andrew Driver (Hearts), Scott Brown (Celtic), Gary Caldwell (Wigan)

***

Liechtenstein vs. Scotland

Euro 2012 Qualifier (3/8), Rheinpark Stadion

I would say that I wasn't so stupid as to believe this would be an easy game, but that would be a lie. That old cliché that “there's no easy games in international football” is bollocks. Spain playing San Marino is an easy game. Scotland playing Liechtenstein should be. I didn't want to have to rely on a 97th minute winner, or anything like that.

Naturally both Darren Fletcher and Kevin Thomson came straight back into the side, whilst Reynolds dropped out of the matchday squad after irritating me against Ireland; the places that he and Caldwell took were filled by Garry Kenneth and Danny Wilson. I'd had it in my mind for a few games now that this could be the long term partnership, and figured that the time had come to give them a run at it.

The U-21s had shown us how to do it with a comfortable 2-0 win over their Liechtenstein counterparts at the Rheinpark Stadion the night before, and we had the chance to pick up where they left off in just the third minute. Darren Fletcher's pass cut through the home defence and found Griffiths in space, but his shot was straight at the keeper and parried away.

Complacency was the only problem I could envisage with beating a team of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers, but it seemed not to be affecting us as we poured forward in search of the opening goal.

Had we tested Peter Jehle in the same way we had Shay Given, I was convinced we'd have got the early lead that I was looking for, but twenty-five minutes in and Griffiths' 3rd minute chance was the only shot we'd managed on target. We were still creating chances, and good ones at that, but our finishing was appalling, the clinching moment of terribleness coming when Steven Fletcher headed over from four yards when completely unmarked and in front of an open goal.

Leigh Griffiths was the only one in a white shirt who looked even remotely like breaking the deadlock, and so it proved in the 39th minute. David Templeton's pace was causing yet another fullback many problems, and with his marker now backing off him, he had the space to cut a ball back to Kevin Thomson. The Rangers man took a touch before laying it off to Griffiths, who hit his shot first time from fifteen yards and watched as it nestled in the back of the net.

That seemed to settle the nerves and we should have added a second straight from the restart, but after McFadden had beaten his man and swung in a dangerous cross from the left, Steven Fletcher again got underneath his header and ballooned it into the stands.

The single goal lead allowed me to give an encouraging, rather than ranting talk at half time, but I still pulled Steven Fletcher out of the game, replacing him with David Clarkson, who was continuing to impress with his goal record at Bristol City.

He had barely touched the ball, however, in the eight minutes he had on the pitch before we managed to shoot ourselves in the foot. The home side had won a corner on the left, and Franz Bergmeier's delivery was well aimed into the 'danger area'. We should have had it covered, but instead Raphael Rohrer was left unmarked at the back post, able to nod the ball past the despairing dive of Craig Gordon and level the scores.

I'd never heard just over six thousand people make quite as much noise as the Rheinpark Crowd did when Rohrer's header crossed the line, but they seemed intent on bursting my eardrums before the full time whistle sounded.

As I sat on the bench having thrown my last substitutes on, watching Peter Houston scream at the players to pour forward, I began to contemplate just how long I'd keep the job if we left Vaduz with only a point to our name. To be honest I felt the prudent thing to do might be to simply flee the country with my life still in tact, and I couldn't bring myself to think of what would happen if we lost.

With twenty minutes left we effectively abandoned the whole idea of defending, at times pushing all ten of our outfield players into the Liechtenstein half. No one was going to be able to say that we had settled for a draw, and it looked like the plan would work when Steven Naismith broke clear with nine minutes left, but his fired his shot straight at Jehle from ten yards out.

The Liechtenstein players were throwing themselves into every tackle, desperate to win the ball back and then hump it way upfield towards Craig Gordon. When we did break through their ranks, Peter Jehle was standing strong and tall in goal, saving from both Griffiths and Dorrans, and when he was beaten by Naismith, the goal was ruled out as the winger had strayed a good two yards offside before the ball was played.

By the time the fourth official showed that there would be three minutes of injury time played, there was a definite booing discernible above the cheers of the home fans. I had no complaint at our fans voicing such an opinion, had I been amongst them I would have been doing the same, and I'm not sure I'd have stopped as they did when, in the 92nd minute, we stole the three points.

I felt sorry for Peter Jehle, he had saved so much but it was his error that gifted us the win. We had won a corner which James McFadden swung into the box and David Clarkson headed goalward. It was not much of a header, a comfortable height for Jehle to take, and with just forty seconds left on the clock, the end was very much in sight for Liechtenstein.

Jehle, however, fumbled the ball, dropped it to the ground and Griffiths reacted quickest, sticking out his left boot and poking the ball over the line. It was the young lad's sixth international goal in just his seventh cap, and it might just have saved my job. Coupled with a 4-3 win for Spain in Prague, the points sent us into second place in the group having played a game less than our Czech rivals.

And it turns out there are no easy games in international football.

Liechtenstein 1 – 2 Scotland

(Griffiths 39, 90+3, Rohrer 53)

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May 2011

Goalkeepers

Craig Gordon (Sunderland), David Marshall (Cardiff City), Allan McGregor (Rangers)

Defenders

Paul Dixon (Dundee Utd), Danny Wilson (Rangers), Gary Caldwell (Wigan), Christophe Berra (Wolves), Shaun Hutchison (Motherwell), Garry Kenneth (Dundee Utd), Paul Caddis (Celtic), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Lee Wallace (Hearts)

Midfielders

Graham Dorrans (Wolves), James McArthur (Hamilton), Darren Fletcher (Manchester United), David Wotherspoon (Hibernian), Robert Snodgrass (Leeds), Steven Naismith (Rangers), David Templeton (Hearts), James McFadden (Birmingham), Andrew Driver (Hearts)

Strikers

John Fleck (Rangers), David Clarkson (Bristol City), Steven Fletcher (Burnley), David Goodwillie (Dundee Utd), Leigh Griffiths (Dundee)

Unavailable

Mark Reynolds (Motherwell), Alan Hutton (Tottenham), Kevin Thomson (Rangers), Scott Brown (Celtic)

***

Wales vs. Scotland

Four Associations Tournament (2/3), Lansdowne Road

In the meeting of the two winners from the first round of games I had been hoping for a draw, but the Republic of Ireland put in a far more convincing performance than they had against us and came away 3-0 winners against Northern Ireland.

That meant that a point against Wales two days later would clinch them the first Four Associations title, but second place and some confidence boosting wins were still there for us to take, and so that was our target.

With two games to be played in just forty-eight hours, I decided to pick two different starting XIs for the games, going with the stronger side in the first game against Wales to make sure that we actually got a win on the board as quickly as possible.

Wales stuck with their 3-5-2 formation that had seen them pick up a point against England at Wembley in their last match whilst we didn't make too many changes from the team that had almost embarrassed themselves in Vaduz.

Their tactic was designed to ensure that they always had a man spare at the back against our two pronged attack, but in the early stages they looked lost at season, and on the second occasion that Leigh Griffiths waltzed straight through them, he opened the scoring.

Taking a pass from Andy Driver, he accelerated between James and Danny Collins, and then faced with a one-on-one against Wayne Hennessey, calmly struck the ball tot he 'keeper's left to continue his fine international form.

Just four minutes later we were in the rarefied air that greets a two goal lead, something that during my tenure we had only experienced for nineteen minutes against the Czech Republic. Steven Whittaker had lined up a free kick twenty yards out and driven his effort wide of the wall, but against the left hand post. The ball rocketed back into the danger area, and there was no time for James Collins to react as the ball bounced off him and past the despairing dive of Hennessey before settling in the back on the net.

Aaron Ramsey – thankfully fully recovered from his horrific leg break – was clearly Wales' best player, but even he was struggling to create anything completely on his own, and he was getting no help at all from his team-mates.

Our wingers were being given all the space in the world to run into behind the Welsh wingbacks, and from one of Andy Driver's well aimed crosses, Jack Collison was spotted barging into the back of Steven Fletcher and a penalty was awarded.

Darren Fletcher stepped up to take the kick, but Hennessey guessed the right way and parried it back out into play. Steven Fletcher got to the loose ball first, but was immediately brought down by Gareth Roberts, referee Michael Kempter pointing to the spot again and showing Roberts a yellow card.

Fletcher was hurt and had to be replaced by Steven Naismith, but not before Graham Dorrans had replaced Darren Fletcher as penalty taker. He made no mistake, powering his effort past Hennessey and giving us a three goal lead.

Wales managed to get into half time without conceding any further goals, and had a chance in the opening minutes after the break to cut the gap, but Craig Bellamy's header was cleared off the line by Whittaker. In response we broke quickly, Griffiths racing down the left flank and crossing to the back post for David Templeton, who headed in our fourth goal of the afternoon.

As will naturally happen when a side is so comfortably in front, we took our foot off the gas somewhat after Templeton's goal. Bellamy and Ched Evans began to see more of the ball in the attacking third of the pitch for Wales, the latter creating a chance for Collison in the 58th minute, but the West Ham midfielder shot wide.

The Welsh continued to press forward in the last half hour as they searched for their long lost respectability in the game, but only once did they force Craig Gordon into a save; Sam Ricketts' weaving run and shot from eight yards making the Sunderland 'keeper push the ball round the post and out for a corner.

We nearly had the final say in injury time, a corner from Graham Dorrans headed just inches over the bar by Naismith, but come the final whistle just a few moments later, I was more than happy to settle for just the four goals.

Wales 0 – 4 Scotland

(Griffiths 14, J.Collins (own goal) 18, Dorrans (pen) 26, Templeton 48)

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Scotland vs. Northern Ireland

Four Associations Tournament (3/3), Thomond Park

We made the journey south to Limerick on the Thursday, giving us a chance to train at the ground on the Friday morning before the match that evening. I was entirely convinced that Ireland would thrash Wales on the Saturday, thereby claiming the title, but at least if we beat Northern Ireland we would sit atop the table for twenty-four hours, and have put together a run of three consecutive wins, which would no doubt help our confidence.

We ended up making six changes to the starting line up as Steven Fletcher passed a late fitness test, lining up alongside débutante David Goodwillie. Snodgrass, Wotherspoon, McArthur, Caldwell and Dixon also came into the starting XI with Dorrans, Clarkson and Marshall the three named on the bench.

Northern Ireland threw up a surprise by not lining up in the 4-4-2 that they had fielded in their past three games, instead leaving David Healy as a lone striker and giving Kalmar FF midfielder Daryl Smylie his first start of the tournament.

I was determined that their tactics wouldn't impact on what we were trying to do, and we'd take the game to them regardless, although we had always planned to make a concession for Steven Davis and have the Rangers midfielder tightly marked at all times as he was, by far, their best player on the ball.

We had an early half chance when David Wotherspoon made a good run down the right flank and cut the ball inside to James McArthur, whose shot crept just wide of the post and into the side netting. What looked like it might hamper our chances though, was the card happy nature of referee Matteo Simone Trefoloni, who had booked Gary Caldwell inside fifty seconds and Darren Fletcher within five minutes.

Despite my pre-match assertions that we would not need to change the way were were set up, I found myself considering just such a move in the twentieth minute as it was clear that Northern Ireland's midfield trio were controlling the game, with Smylie in particularly playing well as he got forward in support of Healy.

I hadn't considered it quickly enough, however, as just two minutes later, with Graham Dorrans going through his final warm up before taking to the pitch, Smylie played a wonderful ball through our defence and into the path of Healy, who thundered his shot past Gordon for the opening goal.

The change didn't do anything to stop Northern Ireland's dominance, and it was only thanks to their wayward shooting that we got to the half time break only one goal down. I would not have been able to complain had we been four or five behind and completely out of the running, but with us still technically in sight, we could try to chance a few things (though it honestly felt like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic) and hopefully steal at least a point.

Northern Ireland were clearly happy to sit back and defend the lead they had, and that should have cost them in the 64th minute, when Dorrans pounced on a loose ball on the edge of the area and burst into the box, but fired his shot straight at Roy Carroll.

With fifteen minutes left they were getting frankly ridiculous with their time wasting, on one occasion right back Lee Hodson took fully eighty-four seconds over a throw in, as we pushed further and further up the pitch in search of an equaliser.

Our efforts were nearly rewarded in the 89th minute when Whittaker curled a shot from thirty yards against the crossbar, but it was not to be and we'd have to make do with a third placed finish. Whether that would satisfy the SFA – who had wanted to win the tournament – was something I would have to find out when we headed home.

Scotland 0 – 1 Northern Ireland

(Healy 22)

The following day, the Republic of Ireland confirmed themselves as Four Associations champions with a 3-1 victory over Wales at Lansdowne Road. I, on the other hand, faced an SFA meeting with men who were growing increasingly frustrated at our performance, and a win over Lithuania in our final qualifier before the summer break was an absolute must.

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June 2011

Goalkeepers

Craig Gordon (Sunderland), David Marshall (Cardiff City), Allan McGregor (Rangers)

Defenders

Paul Dixon (Dundee Utd), Danny Wilson (Rangers), Gary Caldwell (Wigan), Christophe Berra (Wolves), Shaun Hutchison (Motherwell), Garry Kenneth (Dundee Utd), Alan Hutton (Tottenham), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Lee Wallace (Hearts)

Midfielders

Graham Dorrans (Wolves), James McArthur (Hamilton), Darren Fletcher (Manchester United), Kevin McDonald (Burnley), David Wotherspoon (Hibernian), Robert Snodgrass (Leeds), Steven Naismith (Rangers), David Templeton (Hearts), James McFadden (Birmingham), Andrew Driver (Hearts)

Strikers

David Clarkson (Bristol City), Steven Fletcher (Burnley), David Goodwillie (Dundee Utd), Leigh Griffiths (Dundee)

Unavailable

Mark Reynolds (Motherwell), Kevin Thomson (Rangers), Scott Brown (Celtic)

***

Scotland vs. Lithuania

Euro 2012 Qualifier (4/8), Hampden Park

To be honest, I was getting a little tired of 'must win' games, the position of teams like Spain and Italy, sitting easily atop their group looked highly enviable. But with the Czech Republic sitting out this round of fixtures, it gave us the chance to put a three point gap between us and Michal Bilek's men.

Kevin McDonald was parachuted straight into the team with Graham Dorrans taking a place on the bench but the rest of the team had a look of my first choice selection about it. Leigh Griffiths was quickly becoming the first name on the team sheet, and his performances in the club game were backing up what he could do; twenty SPL goals for Dundee in his first season at that level was no small achievement.

Lithuania lined up with two current and two ex Hearts players, including the pantomime villain, Saulius Mikoliunas, more famous for his ridiculous dive in the same fixture than for his footballing talent.

It was now the inevitable conclusion of any qualifying stage draw that Scotland and Lithuania would be placed in the same group, frankly I think most of my countrymen were thoroughly bored with playing them, but if the early signs were anything to go by we'd enjoy this one. Griffiths turned Marius Zaliukas with ease and bore down on goal in just the 8th minute, and should have done more with his shot than drag it across the face of goal and out of play.

I was surprised that Lithuania hadn't simply come to Hampden to defend, and it was seemingly to their detriment that they tried to come forward as, in the 10th minute, we countered quickly and opened the scoring.

Griffiths took a pass from Lee Wallace in the centre of the park and ran into the space behind the visitors' midfield, he squared the ball to McDonald, who in turn played an incisive pass between Zaliukas and Dedura. Steven Fletcher timed his run perfectly and met the pass, hitting a first time shot past Giedrius Arlauskis.

Edgaras Jankauskas was already beginning to look like a forlorn presence up front on his own, and on the quarter hour mark we had our second goal. Griffiths took a pass thirty yards from the Lithuanian goal and ran at Zaliukas, riding the Hearts defender's tackle and racing in on goal, striking his shot across Arlauskis and into the corner of the net.

Steven Fletcher hit the bar with a header as we looked for an early third that would completely kill off the game as a contest, but for that we had to wait until the half hour. Templeton got into a good position and crossed from the right, and though Dedura got to the ball first, his clearing header went only as far as Darren Fletcher. The captain for the day took one touch to control the ball, then played a lovely pass to Griffiths, who ripped a left-footed shot past Arlauskis before he'd had chance to even move.

It was only Leigh's 9th cap and already people were beginning to wonder whether he could break Kenny Dalglish's thirty goal scoring record for Scotland.

Templeton was causing all sorts of problems when we looked to break quickly, and he set up what should have been our fourth just before half time. He got past his man and rolled a ball into the penalty area, but Kevin McDonald snatched at his shot and sent it flying high and wide of the goal when it would probably have been easier to hit the target.

In the second half we wanted to make sure we tightened up the defensive side of the team and didn't let Lithuania even sniff a way back into the game whilst still pressing forward and looking for opportunities to extend our lead.

It worked pretty well as, in the first twenty minutes of the half, we were the only side to get a look at goal scoring chances, Templeton's cross headed over by Steven Fletcher and namesake Darren slicing a shot wide of the post from twelve yards.

We made our three substitutions with twenty minutes left and that seemed to interrupt our flow a little bit, allowing Jankauskas a sight of goal, but his shot from the edge of the box started wide and got wider, ending up nearer the corner flag than Craig Gordon's goal.

David Goodwillie had a half chance to get his first international goal, but under pressure fired his shot straight at Arlauskis. In return the Lithuanian 'keeper crafted a chance for his side, booming his clearance over the heads of our defenders and into the path of Tomas Danilevicius, but the substitute took too much time over his shot and Garry Kenneth recovered to nick the ball off his toes and put it out for a corner.

That was the final chance of the game, and the referee's final whistle was a sweet sound, bringing with it three vital points in our bid for second place. Our next qualifiers, in September, were another double header against Spain and the Czech Republic, and if we could come away from them with even just one point from them I'd be happy.

Scotland 3 – 0 Lithuania

(S.Fletcher 10, Griffiths 15, 30)

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Scotland vs. New Zealand

International Friendly, Hampden Park

It was a draw against New Zealand at Tynecastle that really put the seal on just how bad Berti Vogts reign was; pairing Christian Dailly and Jackie McNamara in central midfield was never going to be a winner.

I was eager to avoid the same fate – although New Zealand were a better side now, they still weren't particularly good – and so it was pretty strong side that took to the field to face the All Whites, with Leigh Griffiths given the chance to continue his scoring form whilst I hoped that David Goodwillie alongside him would break his international duck.

It took us exactly forty-five seconds and thirteen passes to take the lead, and the ball nestled in the back of the net without a New Zealand player having touched it. We passed comfortably, the ball returning to Kevin McDonald three times as we looked for an opening, and when it made its way to the left flank, Paul Dixon laid it off to Andy Driver. The Hearts man swung in an excellent cross to the back post, taking goalkeeper Mark Paston out of the equation and giving Steven Naismith a simple header from four yards into an empty net.

Whether New Zealand had come with the intention of attacking or defending seemed irrelevant to the game as it progressed, they seemed incapable of doing either and only a fingertip save from Paston in the 12th minute stopped Goodwillie grabbing his first Scotland goal.

Indeed Paston was getting plenty of goalkeeping practice as we created plenty of chances, and in the following two minutes he had to save well from both Griffiths and Naismith as we looked for the important second goal.

That goal came in the 17th minute, a clearance from Paston being returned straight back towards his goal and into the path of Goodwillie by Danny Wilson. The Dundee Utd striker was in one-on-one against the Wellington Phoenix goalkeeper, and he made no mistake, waiting until the right moment and then sliding his shot underneath Paston and into the net.

It is often said to be difficult for players to keep their focus when a game is so one-sided, and we did drop off somewhat in the aftermath of Goodwillie's goal. Peter Houston and I came down from our seats in the front of the stand and began bellowing instructions at the players, forcing them to keep the tempo high and their passing sharp.

The boys reacted well, and in the 36th minute we grabbed a third. After some crisp build up play had failed to get us beyond the now very deep New Zealand defence, Leigh Griffiths laid the ball off to McDonald, who simply ran at Steven Old, taking the ball easily past the already booked visiting centre back before sliding his shot into the near corner as Paston tried to set himself. It was a wonderful piece of play from the Burnley man and one which would have to make me think twice when Thomson returned to fitness.

We should have had a fourth before the break, Driver slicing wide of the post after Wilson had found him unmarked with a superb cross, but I was happy to take the lead we had into the changing room.

We put on three fresh faces for the second half – Dorrans, Templeton and Snodgrass – and sent the boys out to make sure they did just as well in the second half and brought home a big win.

It didn't take long for them to add to our score, Dorrans and Snodgrass working the ball well down the left flank before McDonald found Goodwillie in space, and the amusingly named striker drilled a shot into the top corner from sixteen yards.

New Zealand hadn't muster a shot on target in the whole game, but as we eased off again, quietly falling into a comfortable slumber, former Celtic forward Mike McGlinchey scored the goal of the match. The man now plying his trade with Notts County in League Two nicked the ball off Graham Dorrans and barely took another touch before unleashing a fierce, dipping drive across David Marshall and into the corner of the net. There was nothing the Cardiff 'keeper could do but stand and admire the brilliance of the shot, and even the majority of the 33,000 crowd stood up and applauded.

New Zealand had decided to go route one with everything, the ball being passed back to Paston who would launch it upfield in search of Chris Killen's head. The former Celtic man won most of the headers, knocking them down for team mates, and when he took a return pass from Ben Sigmund in the 78th minute, Killen turned and fired past the once again static Marshall for the visitors' second of the match.

It really was a disappointing final half hour to the match after we'd played so well for most of it, but we did at least have the final say, Dorrans taking a pass from Dixon twenty five yards from goal and arrowing a shot into the net with just a minute of regulation time remaining.

Another win was the important factor though, and that made three in the last four games, and with the Czech Republic beating Liechtenstein by only a single goal in Prague, we went into the summer break still above them on goal difference and with a game in hand yet to play. I had started to think things were looking good for us.

Scotland 5 – 2 New Zealand

(Naismith 1, Goodwillie 17, 47, McDonald 36, McGlinchey 59, Killen 78, Dorrans 89)

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September 2011

Goalkeepers

Craig Gordon (Sunderland), David Marshall (Cardiff City), Allan McGregor (Rangers)

Defenders

Paul Dixon (Dundee Utd), Danny Wilson (Rangers), Gary Caldwell (Wigan), Christophe Berra (Wolves), Shaun Hutchison (Motherwell), Garry Kenneth (Dundee Utd), Alan Hutton (Tottenham), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Lee Wallace (Hearts)

Midfielders

Graham Dorrans (Wolves), Stephen McGinn (Watford), Darren Fletcher (Manchester United), Kevin McDonald (Burnley), Kevin Thomson (Rangers), James Morrison (West Brom), Steven Naismith (Rangers), David Templeton (Hearts), James McFadden (Birmingham), Andrew Driver (Hearts)

Strikers

David Clarkson (Bristol City), Steven Fletcher (Burnley), David Goodwillie (Dundee Utd), Leigh Griffiths (Dundee)

Unavailable

Robert Snodgras (Leeds)

***

Scotland vs. Spain

Euro 2012 Qualifier (5/8), Hampden Park

I had expected at least one lunatic journalist to claim that, given our performance in Madrid, we stood a good chance of taking a point from the mighty Spanish when they arrived on our turf, but as it happens not even the permanently drunk Scottish press corps can muster that kind of stupidity. To a man they believed we would be given a hiding. It pains me that they were so right.

We set up, as you would expect, to play on the counter attack, but the problem with that is that your gameplan is essentially requiring one of the best passing teams in history to see a lot of the ball. That might just come under the heading of 'asking for it'.

I thought it was something of a compliment to us that they had this time at least deigned to put Torres and Alonso in their starting line up, but it was two of the lesser lights, Arbeloa and Riera, who teamed up to put the visitors in front after just six minutes.

Alonso, Fàbregas and Torres had been involved in the build up, the usual tiki-taka style with which we have become so familiar, but when the ball came to Arbeloa he caught up out with something of an agricultural lump towards the back post where Riera waited unmarked. The winger chested the ball down and fired low into the corner, shattering any illusions we had that we might at least be able to hold them out.

The accuracy of some of the passing from Xavi and Xabi was painful to watch at times, in the first ten minutes I didn't recall them misplacing a single pass. It was the former who crafted another chance on twelve minutes, his forty-yard pass slicing between Caldwell and Wilson, perfectly in to the feet of Torres who aimed his shot for the corner but saw Gordon just tip it wide of the post.

It was clear already that leaving two up front for us was ensuring that we were hopelessly outnumbered in midfield, so an early change saw Steven Fletcher replaced by Graham Dorrans, the hope being that an extra body in midfield would simply get in the way of Spain's passing game.

It didn't work.

Chances continued to flow for the visiting side, whether they were long shots from Xavi or Fàbregas which inched over or smacked off the woodwork or more intricately worked, closer range chances for Torres or Navas which called Gordon's goalkeeping talents to duty.

They didn't break through again until the 36th minute, however, but it was that man Riera who grabbed the goal when they did. Taking a pass from Alonso just outside our penalty area, Riera found himself tightly marked by both Whittaker and Caldwell. He played a quick one-two with the advancing Fàbregas and turned into the space behind the two defenders, putting himself in on goal and able to finish well, across Gordon and into the far corner of the net.

That Riera's second proved to be the final goal of the game was the only blessing we could take as Spain could have done some serious damage to our goal difference had they been in the mood. However, with a two goal lead in the bag an no evidence that we were going to make any sort of a comeback, they were content simply to dominate possession without looking to really force the matter in terms of creating chances.

They should have extended their lead to three just before the hour mark when Jesús Navas missed a chance that I think even we'd have scored. Navarro and Xavi worked the ball down the left flank, getting the left back into a good crossing position. He swung the ball over and Navas peeled off his marker to the back post, but with a free header and Gordon scrambling across goal, he put his effort three feet over the cross bar.

Their final half chance came with still more than twenty minutes left when Torres took a pass from Sergio Busquets, rode Danny Wilson's challenge and shot for goal from just outside the penalty area, but fortunately for us it was straight at Gordon and the Sunderland keeper held it without a problem.

We finally managed a shot on target with eight minutes of the game left to play. Our midfield had seen so little of the ball that they were starting to lose their belief in its existence, but when Dorrans finally got possession, he did manage to do something creative with it.

A pass with the outside of his right boot was slid in behind Carles Puyol, perfectly weighted for David Templeton, who took it neatly in his stride. He looked to snap a shot off, worried about being closed down, but hurried his effort and found only the safe comfort of Iker Casillas' hands.

With the Czech Republic claiming a 3-0 victory in Vilnius it had been a bad day for us. They jumped three points ahead of us, though their only remaining games were against us and Spain.

Even a loss in Prague would not be fatal, though we would have to hope that they lost to Spain and we gained big wins in our final two matches. A point in Prague, however, would have us right back on top of the world.

Scotland 0 – 2 Spain

(Riera 6, 36)

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Czech Republic vs. Scotland

Euro 2012 Qualifer (6/8), G.Arena

I have to admit to a serious case of nerves as the two teams lined up for this game. We didn't have that many guys playing really well and we were certainly relying on Leigh Griffiths too much. It was for that reason that I'd dropped Kevin Thomson to the bench and brought Kevin McDonald back into the starting line up, hoping that he'd continue where he left off against New Zealand.

Both sides lined up with a 4-4-2 formation with the Czechs relying on the partnership of Groningen's Tomas Necid and Galatasaray's Milan Baros to threaten Caldwell and Wilson. Looking at the faces in the Czech side though, particularly as they were shorn of Petr Cech (Hertha BSC's Jaroslav Drobný replaced him in goal), restored something of my confidence as, a few players aside, we looked a man for man match for them.

The first few minutes of the match were as cagey as you would expect a vital international match to be, but in the ninth minute one small corner of the G.Arena erupted in noise.

With left back Radek Sirl off the pitch having come off worst in a collision with Steven Fletcher, there was space for David Templeton to run into and we utilised it perfectly. Kevin McDonald had the ball on the edge of the box, but with no one covering Sirl's position, he fed a through ball to Templeton, and as Drobný raced out to close him down, the Hearts man quickly slid a shot past him and into the net.

It was a nice way for Templeton to celebrate winning his tenth cap. He had started the season for Hearts on the bench, but his importance at international level was growing almost by the game, and his second goal was nice reward for his recent efforts.

The lead shouldn't have lasted long, but Milan Baros wasted a glorious opportunity to level the scores. Jan Simunek had launched a free kick long into our half, and Tomas Necid won the header against Caldwell. He knocked the ball down into Baros' path, but with a clear shot on goal he thumped his strike straight at Gordon, who beat the ball away with ease.

When they did bring themselves level, however, it was vastly against the run of play and shouldn't have counted in a million years. We had spurned a good chance to extend our lead when Darren Fletcher headed over the bar from eight yards, but Baros made no mistake when he was allowed to play on from a position some three yards offside.

We weren't particularly playing a game to try and catch people offside, but the defence spotted Baros' run was too early and stepped up, ensuring that the Galatasaray man was in acres of space behind the backline. David Jarolim's pass found him, but our players made the criminal decision to stop and wait for the flag, and Baros played on, slipping the ball past Gordon and racing away in celebration despite our protestations to the officials.

The goal had clearly unsettled us, and Baros almost made it two straight from the kick off, but dragged his shot wide when he should have scored. He was heavily involved in the goal that put the Czechs ahead, crossing from the left for Tomas Necid, but when everyone at the near post missed the ball, including Craig Gordon, Jan Polak was left with a simple tap in at the back post to steal a completely undeserved lead.

Half time was all about settling the players down, trying to get them to forget what had happened in that crazy end to the half and focusing on the task ahead. Defeat would make a place in the play-offs mightily hard to obtain, we had to go out and get ourselves back level in the match.

It seemed that it was all futile when Baros broke clear just two minutes after the break, getting his shot off early and watching it sail over the bar when he could have got in one-on-one against Gordon. We reacted quickly, pulling off Darren Fletcher, who seemed completely to have lost his head, and Steven Fletcher, who had made little impact on the game even before the mess we had got ourselves into.

We looked to settle slightly, but ten minutes later it took a world class save from Gordon, tipping Rosicky's twenty yard effort round the post, to keep us in with even the slightest sniff of getting something from the game.

With twenty five minutes left I finally knew that it was not going to be our day. We had finally begun to string some passes together, and a wonderful ball from Templeton put found Clarkson in space behind the Czech defence. The Bristol City striker turned and shot past Drobný, the ball burying itself in the back of the net, but a late linesman's flag ruled the effort out.

The sense of injustice rippling through our bench was clear, Clarkson had been perfectly level with the last defender when Templeton released the ball, but this time we looked to harness that feeling for good. Griffiths perhaps should have done better than drag his shot wide when McDonald played him in, and Clarkson headed inches over the bar when he met an excellent cross from James McFadden.

With time ticking down we were running out of chances to force something from the game and Clarkson proved that his shooting from distance wasn't the answer when he sent one effort ballooning high into the stands.

The Czech Republic had no interest in grabbing a third goal, instead simply sitting back and defending. Their massed ranks proved too difficult for us to break down, and the referee's final whistle brought the curtain down on the theft of three vital points.

Czech Republic 2 – 1 Scotland

(Templeton 9, Baros 40, Polak 45+3)

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October 2011

Goalkeepers

Craig Gordon (Sunderland), David Marshall (Cardiff City), Allan McGregor (Rangers)

Defenders

Paul Dixon (Dundee Utd), Danny Wilson (Rangers), Gary Caldwell (Wigan), Christophe Berra (Wolves), Shaun Hutchison (Motherwell), Alex Pearce (Reading), Alan Hutton (Tottenham), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Lee Wallace (Hearts)

Midfielders

Graham Dorrans (Wolves), Stephen McGinn (Watford), Darren Fletcher (Manchester United), Kevin McDonald (Burnley), Kevin Thomson (Rangers), James Morrison (West Brom), Steven Naismith (Rangers), David Templeton (Hearts), Robert Snodgrass (Leeds), Andrew Driver (Hearts)

Strikers

Kris Boyd (Rangers), Steven Fletcher (Burnley), David Goodwillie (Dundee Utd), Leigh Griffiths (Dundee)

Unavailable

Garry Kenneth (Dundee Utd), James McFadden (Birmingham), David Clarkson (Bristol City)

***

Scotland vs. Liechtenstein

Euro 2012 Qualifier (7/8), Hampden Park

It had been pointed out to me that it was results between teams which was the first differentiator in the case of a tie come the end of qualifying, so David Templeton's goal in Prague gave us a significant advantage in that matter.

Should the Czech Republic lose in Madrid then all we would have to do was beat Lithuania and we would have a place in the play-offs.

However, I was getting ahead of myself. First we had to beat Liechtenstein, and as we showed in Vaduz, that wasn't as easy a task as it sounded.

Although our last two defeats had knocked us down to 49th in the World Rankings, that wasn't our main worry going into the match. Steven Fletcher had picked up a nasty cut on his arm in training and the medical staff were worried about it opening up during the game, so he would have to sit in the stands, hoping he got the OK for the trip to Vilnius.

In his place came the recalled Kris Boyd. The Rangers striker had finally won his place back in the team at Ibrox and had celebrated with a good start to the season – five goals in six games – and I was hoping that the motivation of winning his place back for Scotland would spur him on.

There were a few other changes with Alex Pearce coming in for the under performing Gary Caldwell and Kevin Thomson replacing Darren Fletcher after the latter's show of petulance in Prague.

Leigh Griffiths remained, however, and it was he who had our first chance. With seven minutes on the clock, Kevin McDonald played a pass out to Andy Driver, who quickly fired a low cross into the box. Griffiths diverted it goalward, but Peter Jehle made the block, and did the same when Boyd attempted to turn in the rebound.

My heart leapt into my mouth for a second when Martin Büchel's pass found Raphael Rohrer free on the edge of the box, but Pearce closed him down and suddenly we were on the break. David Templeton took the ball to halfway before sliding a pass in behind the defence for Boyd to run onto.

Boyd outpaced Liechtenstein captain Martin Stocklasa and got to the ball just outside the area. He ran with it for a further five yards before slamming his shot across Jehle and in off the far post. At club level he was known for being good against the small teams, and I was pleased to see him continue that in the international arena.

The returning striker was causing the Liechtenstein defence all sorts of problems, and by the half hour he could have completed a hat-trick, first lifting his shot over the bar after Griffiths had found him in space before then shooting wide having just superbly controlled Driver's fizzed cross.

It was quickly becoming the Kris Boyd show, but the problem was he was off target more often that not. After McDonald's mazy run in the 39th minute, Lee Wallace sent over an excellent cross which Boyd rose to met, but he couldn't keep his header down and held his head in his hands as it sailed over the bar.

We had proven when last we met that, whilst we remained only one goal up, there was the potential for embarrassment. Some could say it was exactly what we deserved when, in the 44th minute, David Hasler broke clear in midfield and exchanged passed with Rohrer before sliding a ball to Michele Polverino, who thumped a first time shot beyond Gordon.

The players were left in no uncertain terms about how I felt during the break, though they did leave with encouraging words in their ears as we received the news that Spain led the Czech Republic 1-0 thanks to a goal from Cesc Fàbregas.

A renewed spirit flowed through the players with the news that second place was still on the cards, and seven minutes into the half they had their lead back. After Thomson's corner was headed back out to the left flank, Andy Driver curled a cross along with six yard box which Boyd met at the back post, side-footing the ball home with Jehle stranded.

Boyd could have made it certain on the hour, again finding himself in space in the penalty area but seeing his venomous shot towards the corner pushed away by the Liechtenstein 'keeper.

There was, however, no danger of us surrendering the lead again. We continued to hammer on the door and, with just eleven minutes left, Boyd finally did grab his hat-trick. Substitute Graham Dorrans found him on the edge of the box with Michael Stocklasa in close attention, but he easily turned the brother of Liechtenstein's captain and fired past Jehle at the near post.

We could have had a fourth on a few occasions, Boyd, Dorrans and Goodwillie all missed decent chances, but I was happy to settle for the three. I was even happier with the four when we finally did manage it, a minute into injury time. Dorrans again supplied the ammunition for Boyd, chipping a cross in to the big striker for him to head down and past Jehle.

From eleven shots on goal and seven on target, Boyd had managed four goals. It marked a good return to the side for him and proved that he was worth his weight in gold when trying to put away this sort of opposition.

Scotland 4 – 1 Liechtenstein

(Boyd 17, 52, 79, 90+1, Polverino 44)

Peter Houston had stepped away from the bench in the final minutes to search out the final score in the Spain-Czech Republic game, and as I turned into the changing room after all the handshakes he gave me the thumbs up and gestured 1-0. It was now in our hands

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Lithuania vs. Scotland

Euro 2012 Qualifier (8/8), Zalgiris

Let's be honest, I had never felt nerves like this in my playing career. There were still a few naysayers – mostly those who felt that Smallberries was a ridiculous name for a football manager – but it was the weight of expectation from the majority which felt heavy on me.

There was just one change to the starting line up with Leeds winger Robert Snodgrass replacing the tired Andy Driver, but there was a bit of a shake up on the bench with Stephen McGinn coming in for Dorrans, Steven Fletcher fit enough to take his place ahead of David Goodwillie and James Morrison sitting in the seat vacated by Snodgrass.

My nerves were clearly shared by the players, and they weren't helped just four minutes into the match when Kevin Thomson was forced off after a heavy challenge from Linas Pilibaitis left him gasping for air and clutching his chest in pain. It transpired later that he had a broken rib, but for now it was more important that Darren Fletcher got into the game quickly.

Lithuania had lined up with exactly the same starting XI that had come to Hampden in June, so at least we knew where their threat would come from. Stopping it was a different matter, however, and in the ninth minute they should have taken the lead. Edgaras Jankauskas dropped deep and gathered the ball, then played in Arvydas Novikovas. The Hearts winger created a yard of space for himself and fired off a shot from twelve yards which zipped just past the post with Gordon well beaten.

It was in over hitting passes and crosses that our nerves were showing themselves, and it was luck really that brought about our first chance. Darren Fletcher had way overpowered a pass down the left flank to Lee Wallace, but Marius Stankevicius body-checked the Hearts left back anyway. The free kick was awarded and Snodgrass curled it into the 'danger area' where we had bodies waiting. Kris Boyd rose to meet it, but his header crashed back off the cross bar and Marius Zaliukas cleared.

What had long since become evident as that the home team were the better side. They passed the ball better, they attacked with intent, and when captain Deividas Semberas curled a shot towards goal from twenty yards, it looked like they would lead. Gordon, again, had been beaten all ends up – though realistically there was little he could have done to stop it – but the ball thumped into the underside of the crossbar and down just the right side of the goal line from our perspective. Gordon was quickly up and smothered the loose ball as Jankauskas raced in to put the rebound away and we lived to fight.

We were creating the occasional half chance, mostly when we aimed crosses towards Kris Boyd, but he was always under pressure from the Lithuanian defence and he just couldn't find the target with any of his efforts.

If we were going to do this, it was going to be a smash and grab, so I got the message on to focus on getting to half time without conceding. We narrowed our play and sat with two tight banks of four, restricting the space that Jankauskas had been dropping into. They were welcome to try and beat us on the flanks, but having spent painful time watching both Cesnauskis and Novikovas play for Hearts I was well aware that they couldn't cross if their lives depended on it, so it was a threat I felt safe against.

We did get into the break with the game still scoreless, and we spent the time trying to assure the players that if they calmed down, stopped running around like headless chickens and actually played to their capabilities then they were a better side than Lithuania and would emerge triumphant.

There was one change which had to be made as Kevin McDonald had a cut just above his eye which wouldn't stop bleeding no matter how much Vaseline was applied and had soaked through the bandage in roughly two minutes. The doctor took him away to put in some stitches whilst Stephen McGinn took his place on the field, giving us an entirely different central midfield to the one we'd sent out an hour before.

Lithuania obviously knew that they couldn't catch us for third place in the group, but they were still motivated to get at least a point and try to improve their world ranking. The first ten minutes of the second half were pretty quiet, but they still had the better of possession and had the one half chance that did come, Jankauskas drilling a shot a foot wide of the right hand post as Danny Wilson closed him down.

Our passing had finally started to find some measure of success and we should have taken the lead on the hour mark when a lovely move – the first we had put together – saw Snodgrass send Griffiths scampering away down the inside left channel before standing a cross up to the back post. Stephen McGinn arrived just before Zaliukas, but his header from six yards clipped the top of the crossbar and flew into the stands behind the goal.

It was then that we made our final change, sending on Steven Fletcher for Kris Boyd, who had become less and less effective as the game wore on. Fletcher may not have been prolific in his Scotland career, but I was hopeful that he could at least make a nuisance of himself and hopefully attract attention away from Griffiths.

Indeed that plan almost worked to absolute perfection within five minutes. McGinn had certainly improved us in midfield and he was getting forward to good effect. As he drifted out to the right, he took a pass from David Templeton and drilled a cross towards the near post.

Steven Fletcher's run to meet it drew both centre backs, Zaliukas and Egidijus Steinas, but he won the header, flicking it on towards the back post where Griffiths stood unmarked. I would have put a lot of money on the Dundee man scoring from such a position but he went for a header despite having enough time to wait for the ball to drop and his effort wasn't powerful enough, allowing Geidrius Arlauskis to get across and tip it wide.

Time ticked on into the final twenty minutes and it was getting close to the point when I would have to instruct the players to get the ball into the Lithuanian penalty area as quickly and as often as possible. We did start to push the defensive line further up the field, and by the time that there were only twelve minutes left we were basically playing with all ten outfield guys in the Lithuanian half and Craig Gordon waiting on the edge of his penalty area to race out and clear any balls over the top.

We were still struggling to create, but with seven minutes left all that worry just melted away. Lee Wallace lofted a ball towards Steven Fletcher, who won the header and knocked it down to Griffiths. Fletcher had dropped a bit deeper than usual to win the header, bringing the Lithuanian centre backs with him, and he then turned and sprinted into the space behind them.

Griffiths was on the same wavelength and played a quick ball back for him to run onto, and suddenly we had a one-on-one situation. Fletcher took a couple of touches, taking the ball into the penalty area, and then with the defence starting to close in he thrashed a shot from fifteen yards which flew across Arlauskis and into the corner of the net.

I had expected Lithuania to almost accept their fate after that, in the end the game wasn't that massively important to them, but they came at us with attack after attack in the final five minutes of the match. I could honestly barely watch as Pearce and Wilson had to clear time after time, rising high to win headers and timing tackles to perfection, but they completed the task admirably and when the final whistle went we raced onto the pitch to celebrate.

Lithuania 0 – 1 Scotland

(S.Fletcher 83)

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Euro 2012 Qualifying Play-Off Draw

Of course, once we got home the following morning, a few of the lads wearing shades to hide the effects of a late night, we had the draw to think about. With three British Isles teams having finished second in their group, there was plenty of interest amongst the national media and we had no trouble finding a place to sit and watch the draw.

The sides I desperately wanted to avoid were Italy and the Republic of Ireland, whilst Wales and Albania seemed like the best options we could get. Belgium, Greece and Norway sat somewhere in the middle as teams who I wouldn't be all out confident against, but who we could beat if we played very well.

Thankfully this time UEFA hadn't followed FIFA's exploits of deciding at the very last minute to seed the draw, so I could still hold out hope of missing the tie against Italy that my pessimistic mind had us inevitably drawn towards.

The wait was over and finally the names were set to be pulled out. Greece were the first team drawn, and with the second leg at Hampden I would have settled for that, but they were paired against Belgium. I was getting seriously nervous now as we had a forty percent chance of getting one of the two teams I wanted to avoid, but next out of the hat were Albania.

This was it, this was the one I wanted and someone, somewhere was listening. It was almost enough to make me believe in God when the next name read out was Scotland. The squad erupted in cheers and I knew it would be my job to make them focus when we met for the match in a month's time, but right now I was going to enjoy it.

Wales were the next team to hear their fate, and it was a horrid one for the Valley boys as they got the dreaded draw against Italy. That left Ireland facing Norway, with the first leg to be played in Dublin, and that was going to be no easy task for Giovanni Trappattoni's men.

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I'm pretty sure the Albanian manager would have been pretty happy with the draw, Dal :p Maybe only Wales would have been better for them. Gav, don't you get enough of me as you watch me continually destroy my Rangers side in the online game?

Jay, the teams that won their qualifying groups were, France, Spain, England, Holland, Portugal, Germany, Russia, Croatia and Serbia whilst Sweden qualified automatically as the best 2nd placed team.

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November 2011

Goalkeepers

Craig Gordon (Sunderland), David Marshall (Cardiff City), Allan McGregor (Rangers)

Defenders

Paul Dixon (Dundee Utd), Danny Wilson (Rangers), Gary Caldwell (Wigan), Christophe Berra (Wolves), Alex Pearce (Reading), Garry Kenneth (Dundee Utd), Alan Hutton (Tottenham), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Lee Wallace (Hearts)

Midfielders

Graham Dorrans (Wolves), Stephen McGinn (Watford), Darren Fletcher (Manchester United), Kevin McDonald (Burnley), Kevin Thomson (Rangers), James Morrison (West Brom), Steven Naismith (Rangers), David Templeton (Hearts), Robert Snodgrass (Leeds), Andrew Driver (Hearts)

Strikers

Kris Boyd (Rangers), Steven Fletcher (Burnley), David Clarkson (Bristol City), Leigh Griffiths (Dundee)

***

Albania vs. Scotland

Euro 2012 Qualifying Play-Off (1st leg), Qemal Stafa

For all that I had been celebrating getting Albania in the play-off draw, the bare facts of the matter were that they sat twenty two places above us in the World Rankings and had finished 2nd in their group ahead of both Romania and Bosnia & Herzegovina. They made have suffered a few heavy defeats, but they were also capable of springing good results when they were most needed.

They had a few talented players, particularly in Sunderland's Lorik Cana and Sporting's Debatik Curri, whilst Armend Dallku and Hamdi Salihi had also got positive reports from our scouting trips. Quite a number of their squad, however, wouldn't have got near ours, and that was what gave me the belief that we would come away from the tie with a place in the finals booked.

With Darren Fletcher suspended for the first leg, I had hoped that Kevin Thomson would recover from his rib injury in time, but he just failed a late fitness test as was kept in the stands in the hope that he could play some part in the return leg at Hampden.

That meant a new central midfield, Stephen McGinn and Kevin McDonald partnered together whilst Templeton and Morrison started on the wings, with Boyd and Griffiths up front. Garry Kenneth reclaimed his place alongside Danny Wilson in defence with Alex Pearce dropping to the bench, and Craig Gordon won his 50th cap in goal. With both Thomson and Fletcher out, Kenneth was given the captain's armband, with Whittaker his vice captain for the day.

Albania had played a 4-4-2 throughout qualification, but sprang a surprise going into this match with a Christmas Tree formation that saw Salihi up front on his own, supported by Parid Xhihani and Dorian Bylykbashi in the attacking midfield roles.

It was clear from the way that the teams lined up that Albania would outnumber us in midfield, we just had to hope that we had the quality to deal with that. The game didn't start well, however, and from a free kick twenty yards out, Bylykbashi thundered an effort through our splintered wall and into the net to open the scoring.

We had barely touched the ball before we fell behind, and when we finally did get hold of it we looked good, a half chance created for Steven Whittaker, who fired his shot wide of the post from the edge of the area.

Possession was being pretty equally shared between the sides, but we should have been up in numbers on the field from the seventeenth minute. Debatik Curri flew into a two-footed challenge on James Morrison – the West Brom winger frankly lucky to escape serious injury, though we did have to take him off with bruising on his ankle and replace him with Steven Naimsmith – but saw only a yellow card from referee Tom Henning Øvrebø when even his own team mates expected red.

It did mean that Curri would be suspended for the return leg, but if he helped them win in this match then it would be a price worth paying. It was perhaps that injustice, however, that spurred us on a bit as we started to take a greater control of the game and carve out some decent chances.

With Curri having to be careful now that he was on a yellow card, we got Templeton running at him at every opportunity, and the Sporting left back gave him too much space to get his crosses in. One such cross almost created a goal when Migen Metani got his timing wrong and was relieved to see his header flick wide off the outside of the post.

Albania were still breaking with pace, however, and that was how they caught us on the half hour. A ball into the space behind our defence from Lorik Cana caused complete chaos and Parid Xhihani raced onto it, firing a shot straight at Gordon, but alert to the rebound which he tucked away with ease to give the home side a two goal cushion.

We had to react and did so by bringing Pearce on for Boyd, putting the Reading man at right back whilst pushing Whittaker forward into midfield and leaving Griffiths up front on his own. Our qualification hopes were hanging by a thread and at very least we could not afford to go any further behind.

The changes got us through to half time with the score unchanged, but there were no fireworks set off to try and motivate them, simply a question asked of whether they actually wanted this. Frankly it hadn't looked like they did, and if they kept playing the same way then they'd be spending next summer on a beach somewhere, thinking about what might have been.

Our hosts were clearly happy to sit back in the second half and protect what they had built, and I couldn't blame them for a second. It made it difficult for us to breakthrough, but we should have had a goal back just after the hour when McDonald found Griffiths in space, but the Dundee man continued his international drought by firing his shot straight at Isli Hidi in goal.

That was Griffiths' last action as he was replaced by Steven Fletcher in the hope that the Burnley man could have the same impact off the bench as he had against Lithuania.

He almost had a goal within two minutes of coming on, glancing a header towards the far post from Wallace's cross but watching as it floated agonizingly wide. However, he did have a massive part to play when we did score, with sixteen minutes left on the clock.

With Naismith cutting in from the left flank, Wallace was finding plenty of space from which to deliver his crosses, but on this occasion Dallku got his head to it first, sending the ball looping out for a corner.

At least, that was what everyone assumed, but Fletcher had reacted brilliantly, volleying the ball across goal just before it went out of play. Hidi flapped at it, getting just enough on the ball to divert it into the path of Kevin McDonald, who hit a first time shot into the wide open net, scoring what we felt might just be a vital away goal.

Albania were just hanging on, packing their defence as best they could but still Templeton ran past Curri at will and again almost created a goal, his beautiful cross headed just inches over the bar by Fletcher.

We pressed and pressed in search of an equaliser, comfortable in the knowledge that Albania weren't going to put men forward to try and catch us on the break, but time ran out on us before we could force the ball home again. Had I been offered 2-1 when Xhihani had tucked away their second though, I would have taken it without a moment's hesitation, and it kept us in the tie as we headed back to Hampden.

Albania 2 – 1 Scotland

(Bylykbashi 4, Xhihani 31, McDonald 74)

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Scotland vs. Albania

Euro 2012 Qualifying Play-Off (2nd leg), Hampden Park

The most stunning result of the first legs had been Wales' 2-0 victory over Italy at the Millennium Stadium. Ched Evans and Sam Vokes had scored the goals that saw them put one foot in the finals, and which cost Marcelo Lippi his job before the second leg had been played. U-21 boss Pierluigi Casiraghi was put in charge for the return leg, and there was still a sense of expectation that the Italians would get the job done.

There was a similar sense around Hampden that we would have the tools to overturn our single goal deficit against Albania. A number of people in the media – people who should, quite frankly, know better – were proclaiming Kevin McDonald's strike as the one that would take Scotland to the European Championships.

I had chosen to stick with the 4-3-3 formation which had brought about our change in fortunes in Tirana. With Darren Fletcher back from suspension and Kevin Thomson fit enough to be in the starting line-up, we had a strong midfield trio, with Thomson sitting behind Fletcher and McDonald.

That meant McGinn and Boyd dropping to the bench whilst the rest of the team remained the same, and Albania had two changes, at left back where Elvin Beqiri stepped in for the suspended Debatik Curri, and up front Dorian Bylykbashi dropped out and was replaced by Erjon Bogdani.

The crowd were obviously going to get edgy as the game wore on, so an early goal would have been just what the doctor ordered, getting us ahead on away goals and boosting our confidence.

But to ensure that we didn't get too cocky, it was Albania who crafted the first chance of the match, Xhihani playing a lovely ball to Bogdani, who's shot would have crept in at the corner had Craig Gordon not been alert and managed to stick out a foot and divert it for a corner.

From the corner, Bogdani should again have had the ball in the net. He drifted to the near post unmarked and met Besart Ibraimi's delivery with a glancing header which flicked off the cross bar and out for a goalkick.

We needed something to settle the crowd down and it came in the seventh minute with a lovely run from James Morrison. The West Brom man had been tasked with cutting inside from his left win starting position, running at the Albanian defence and causing them problems, and that was exactly what happened when he jinked his way past tackles, denied a goal only by an excellent stop from goalkeeper Isli Hidi.

I had, perhaps naïvely, expected Albania to come to Hampden with a sole intention of sitting on their lead and trying to defend their way through the tie. I had quite clearly misjudged them, however, as they seemed intent on cancelling out our away goal, and came mightily close to doing so when a long shot from Lorik Cana dipped just too late and skimmed the top of the crossbar on its way over.

Our cause wasn't helped by the fact that we were giving the ball away too often, particularly to Xhihani and Salihi. The two combined on the quarter hour to create the space for Cana to have another pop from distance, this one low enough but just curling away and past the right hand post.

We had been given fair and full warning, and thankfully we decided to heed it. We could have led on the night when a corner was cleared only as far as McDonald and his curling shot required a superb save from Hidi, but we had to wait even if we were starting to exert a measure of control.

It was perhaps unfortunate in a game of such magnitude that it should be a mistake which allowed us to open the scoring, but it was not a gift which we were going to turn down.

In the 26th minute, McDonald went on a bit of an aimless wander down the left flank before hitting a hopeful low cross towards the near post. It should have been the simplest of things for Hidi to bend down and collect the trickling ball, but he somehow contrived to spill it at the feet of Leigh Griffiths, who had followed the poor cross in. Leigh managed to adjust his feet quickly enough to flick the ball past Hidi before he could do anything about it, and the ball rolled into the net despite Beqiri's desperate, lunging attempt to keep it out.

The sense of relief was palpable, and though I'd have preferred us to push on in search of a second before half time, the players eased off the gas somewhat for the remaining twenty minutes. There were the odd half chances that still came our way, both Kenneth and Whittaker shooting wide from corners, but clearly the players were just happy to get in with their lead in tact.

The break was a chance to make sure that the players knew they still had plenty of work on to get through this tie. Xhihani, Salihi, Cana and Bogdani were all capable of causing us problems and we had to be careful, ensuring that we didn't give them an easy route back in.

Albania made a change at half time, a straight swap at right back, bringing on Abraham Alechenwu for Kristi Vangjeli. The game was quite edgy on its restart with both sides more concerned with not making mistakes than actually creating chances.

In the 54th minute we decided to throw everything we had on the table. I wasn't convinced that we could hold Albania out for the remaining time, so fresh legs in creative areas would hopefully see us add at least a second goal.

David Templeton had picked up a slight knock, so bringing him off for Steven Naismith was an easy decision. Following Templeton off the pitch were the architects of our goal, McDonald and Griffiths, replaced by McGinn and Boyd respectively in the hope that an improved physicality would up our chances.

The fact that a goal followed just two minutes later would normally be cause for me to claim managerial genius, but it was all about Danny Wilson. It may have been Stephen McGinn who delivered the corner into a dangerous area, but Wilson's movement to the near post left him completely unmarked and his header crashed in off the underside of the cross bar. His first international goal and such a potentially crucial one, it was a big moment for the lad.

I was still plenty aware that a single Albanian goal would take us to extra time, and that was something I definitely wanted to avoid. The players were urged on to go for a killer third, and they responded well.

With the crowd singing to a deafening level, the players were inspired forward and we nearly came across our third when Whittaker curled a free kick just wide of the post. Another chance was carved out when Naismith's lung bursting run down the right saw him cut the ball back to Boyd, but his effort was sliced wide of the post.

What there was a distinct lack of, however, was any sort of attacking threat from Albania, so it was no surprise when we tied up the match with a third goal on the night.

It came with just six minutes left and was a lovely effort. Lee Wallace played a ball down the left for Morrison to run onto, and the West Brom man beat Alechenwu, then stood a cross up to the back post. Boyd wasn't quick enough to be up with the break, but Naismith was, and he rose above Beqiri and headed in from five yards out.

That put the result in our pocket, and the stadium erupted when the final whistle sounded.

Scotland 3 (4) – 0 (2) Albania

(Griffiths 26; Wilson 56; Naismith 84)

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European Championships 2012 Draw

I sat back with a cold beer as the preamble to the draw got underway. It was a satisfying feeling to have guided Scotland back to this stage for the first time since 1998, and I knew now that it meant I could leave the job with my head held high in the summer.

Much of my time that morning had been spent looking at the potential groups we could get. In Pot 1 there were two teams that everyone lower down would be happy to get, as host nations Poland and the Ukraine took the top two spots, joined by Spain and a France side resurgent after their humiliating World Cup.

I had no interest in drawing England from Pot 2, as the media hype surrounding such a game would be ridiculous. The rest of the pot wasn't too pretty either, though, with the Netherlands, Italy (who had bounced back with a 5-0 victory over Wales in the second leg of their play-off) and Portugal awaiting in what was undoubtedly the strongest pot.

The third seeds that everyone would want to avoid were Germany, but both Russia and Croatia would present big hurdles as well. Each group would be hoping to get Greece from pot three.

The final pot saw us joined by Ireland, Serbia and Sweden. We came into the draw as the lowest ranked of all the qualified teams, and I wasn't kidding myself that any draw would be easy, but were we to get Poland and Greece in our group, I'd hold out hope that we could squeeze into the quarter finals. If we were to draw Spain, England and Germany, I'd have to consider resigning before getting thoroughly embarrassed without a point or a goal.

The Pot 1 teams were drawn first with Poland and the Ukraine placed in Groups A and B respectively. Spain then went into Group C and France into Group D. England were the first name out of the hat from Pot 2, placed alongside Poland in Group A whilst Italy got the other kind draw as they would face the Ukraine in Pot B.

Holland joined Spain in Group C, so that group was already looking monumentally difficult, whilst Portugal and France, perhaps two of the flakiest sides in the draw, were paired together in Group D.

The English media was sent into a frenzy when Germany were drawn from Pot 3 into their group, with Poland alongside them as well I could already see the World War II re-enactments in the newspapers. There would be an Eastern European battle with Russia placed alongside the Ukraine in Group B. Spain and Holland were joined by Croatia, which left Portugal and France with the pleasant draw of Greece alongside them.

Now it was down to business. If I'd had my pick it would have been either Group B or D, probably the latter given that either France or Portugal could completely implode at any moment. Group A was one to avoid simply because I couldn't be bothered dealing with the headlines, whilst I had no ambition to be played off the park as mercilessly as we would be against Spain and the Netherlands.

Serbia were sent to join England, Poland and Germany whilst Ireland had a chance to get through as they were placed alongside the Ukraine, Italy and Russia. That left us still with a 50-50 chance of getting something halfway decent, but that chance evaporated as we were drawn in Group C and would have to face Spain, the Netherlands and Croatia. That left Sweden to entertain hopes of a quarter final place with France, Portugal and Greece in their group.

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Ooh, well.

I would have loved the England/Scotland/Poland/Germany group. Would have been an all out battle. :p

But still, tough. I can't really see how you can get out of that one really Terk. But third place is not improbable.

My predictions:

Group A - England, Germany

Group B - Italy, Russia

Group C - Spain, Netherlands (repeat of the WC final)

Group D - France, Portugal

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Did you load the "retain all players" file? If not manageable nations will drop off the list as fewer and fewer players are generated from those countries.

It's a fantastic read so far, really wish I hadn't deleted my old save as my new computer probably would have been able to handle it better than my old one :( Might start a new one with FM11.

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Just enjoyed half an hour of reading this story when I should have been working. Well done on qualifying, and well documented too.

I went to Hampden to watch Scotland once. It was in 1991 and San Marino were the visitors for a Euro 92 qualifier. Scotland won 4-0. McCoist got the fourth goal but I can't remember who got the others. The right back was Hearts player McPherson who had a great game.

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I appreciate all the comments, guys :)

Ben, we'll have to see how good your predictions are, but you're right that it's going to be very tough for us to get out of that group.

Elrithral, thanks for the very kind words and yes, I took heed of your advice and loaded the retain players file. Hopefully that should keep me going for a good long while as I hop around the world. I hope you do take another shot with FM11 as 'It's not Terry's' was one of my favourite international stories on the forum :thup:

Scottlee, good to have you along :) All I have to say is Davie McPherson = legend.

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