Scotland begin a new era on Wednesday evening at Pittodrie. Occasionally that term is preceded by the word brave, or even expectant, but the hopes of the Tartan Army are now so frugal, they’d probably be happy if Gordon Strachan’s tenure can eventually be described simply as the, we got slightly better era.
Strachan’s first opponents, Estonia were last encountered in 2004 when a solitary James McFadden strike was enough to seal a 1-0 friendly win at the Le Coq Arena. During the 1990′s however the two nations were regularly drawn together in qualifying pools, and in the first eight years following the former Soviet state’s independence, they met on six occasions.
They were first paired with them in the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup and their inaugural meeting was in the Kadriorg Stadium in Tallinn, where goals from Kevin Gallacher, John Collins and Scott Booth sealed a 3-0 away win for the Scots. The return match, coincidentally also at Pittodrie, again saw Scotland rack up 3 goals, thanks to a Brian McClair opener and two goals from Pat Nevin. The wingers strikes came either side of Estonia’s first ever goal against Scotland, scored by Sergei Bragin.
Unfortunately for Scotland, Estonia were one of only two nations that they managed to defeat during that campaign, the other being Group 1 minnows Malta. Three home draws with Switzerland, Portugal and Italy, combined with three defeats in the reverse fixtures, meant that Scotland failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1970.
Few people probably remember those first two meetings though, or even the most recent game that took place nine years ago. No, the game that springs to mind when recalling this match up is the infamous day 16 years ago when there was literally only one team in Tallinn.
Scotland’s campaign for France ’98 had started promisingly, and after an away draw in Austria and a 2-0 victory in Latvia, Scotland arrived in Estonia in October 1996, in a buoyant mood. That confidence turned to concern when Craig Brown and the squad went to the Kadriorg stadium to check the stadiums facilities. Brown felt that the temporary floodlights, attached to the back of vans located around the edges of the park weren’t of sufficient standard, and were leaving some areas of the park unusually dark. Scotland contacted FIFA Commissioner Jean-Marie Gantenbain and the Luxembourg official inspected the stadium the night before the game. His observations were that, although areas of the park were indeed darker than they should be, the conditions were clearly the same for both sides, and as a result, the match could still go ahead the following evening.
Before Gantenbain had inspected the Tallinn stadium, the Estonian FA had agreed to comply with any alteration to the kick off time, and after the Commissioner had suggested that the match should retain its 18:45 start time, the home officials felt that that should be the end of the matter.
The Scottish FA decided otherwise and contacted FIFA once more with their concerns. This time FIFA agreed to their demands and the match was moved to an afternoon kick off. This led to the Scottish FA hurriedly laying on transport for the 600 or so Scotland fans who had made the 1000 mile journey for the game.
The home side however were less keen on the new arrangements, and the Estonian FA cited the fact that some of their part time players would still be at work, along with the majority of their fans. As a result, they declared that they would not be at the stadium at the rescheduled start time.
So, in front of just 600 Scotland fans, the Scottish players lined up for an international match, with no opponents in sight. As protocol dictated, the match had to begin with a coin toss, which John Collins thankfully won. What would have happened if he had lost the toss will always remain a mystery. Billy Dodds then took the kick off and passed the ball to John Collins, whose first touch was the last moment of the match, and referee, Miroslav Radoman blew for full time, just a couple of seconds after he’d signalled the start of the game.
Despite travelling so far and not seeing a game of football the visiting support seemed quite happy with the situation, as did John Collins, who had the temerity to celebrate as the full time whistle blew. In fact the only man who didn’t look particularly pleased as he trooped off was Andy Goram, although that may have been down to his garish goalkeeping attire that looked like it had been personally designed for him by someone with a thorough dislike of the shot stopper.
It seemed a reasonably cut and dry case around what would happen next, for failing to fulfil the fixture it was expected that Scotland would be awarded the points and a 3-0 walkover scoreline. Instead, at a FIFA meeting the next month, the governing body decided that the game should be replayed at a neutral venue. Some suggested that Swede Lennart Johansson, a prominent member of FIFA, was behind the idea, since his own country was locked in a battle with Scotland at the top of Group 4. Grudgingly, the Scottish FA accepted the decision.
The match was scheduled to take place in Monaco and right from the off there was a sense of foreboding about the replay. There was just something inherently Scottish about the fact that they could conceivably end up not winning a tie against opponents who initially, hadn’t even bothered to turn up. With an almost weary inevitability, that was indeed the scenario that was played out and Scotland tolled to a 0-0 draw, a result that temporarily threatened to jam a stick inside the spokes of their qualification challenge. That forgettable evening in the Stade Louis II stadium was also notable for it being Duncan Ferguson’s seventh, and final cap for Scotland. It was an ignominious end to what could have been a glittering international career for the front man.
The rest of the campaign was almost blemish free though, and the only loss during the ten match programme was a 2-1 defeat in Sweden. Scotland eventually sealed their place at the French jamboree after a final game victory over Latvia.
With a record of 5 wins and 2 draws from their 7 games against Wednesday nights visitors, Estonia look like ideal opponents for Strachan to get his reign off to a winning start. One things for certain at least, they’re pretty much guaranteed to turn up this time.