At this time of the year, with domestic football concluded and the World Cup looming…
It was all going so well. Scotland were leading England in the semi-final of a tournament and appeared comfortable. A wonder goal from Celtic winger Mikey Johnston separated the sides, a goal which would’ve been worthy of winning any international match. Unfortunately, the Auld Enemy were able to turn the tables on the Scots in the second half and ran out 3-1 winners.
It’d be easy to focus on the negatives of this young Scotland side’s defeat. The second half performance wasn’t good enough, they played too deep and the defending was poor for all three goals. Conversely, in England, they were up against one of the best teams in the world. Therefore it’s much more important to focus on the positives and why this young Scotland team are so special. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
Sure, Scot Gemmill’s side will contest the third-place play-off for a second year in a row at the Toulon Tournament, but there’s been a definite improvement in his team since then. They overcame a tricky South Korean side after shocking hosts France with a wonderful win and performance.
How can there be an improvement if they lost to England in the semi-finals of the same tournament for the second year in a row? Easy, the performances differ hugely. Last year Scotland were completely overwhelmed by England and at no point looked capable of competing, nevermind winning, their last four tie.
Fast forward 12 months and Gemmill’s side were executing their game plan perfectly. They contained England and ensured they only had a couple of chances in the first half. In the meantime, the men in dark blue looked dangerous on the attack and could’ve been 2-0 up had Oliver Burke not blasted his shot against the post. As his manager pointed out after the match, it’s all about “fine margins.”
What’s perhaps even more encouraging is that the starting 11 from Wednesday evening’s match was barely recognisable from that which lined up against the Three Lions a year ago. New players have come in and shown they have what it takes to not only perform at this level but thrive whilst in a Scotland jersey. Such is the number of impressive performances it’s hard to point out just a couple of star players for Scotland this tournament.
Burke, Greg Taylor, Iain Wilson and Anthony Ralston were the only players who were in the squad for last year’s competition. Simply put, this isn’t the same group of players coming back the following year and making a significant improvement. No, what we have is a squad and starting 11 with numerous new faces who have managed to better the performance of last year. In essence, we have a group of young players who are arguably already better than a year ago and many still have many more games to play in the U21s.
This isn’t a Scotland side who can only defeat the smaller teams. This isn’t a Scotland side who fear or struggle against the best national teams at this level. No, this is a Scotland side that knows they have the talent to give any nation a tough game on their day; just ask France.
We might be harping on about it, but it cannot be underplayed how impressive the victory over France in Toulon was. You only have to realise we haven’t won against a French side at any level in international football since one James McFadden smacked the ball past an unsuspecting Mickael Landreau in Paris.
This young French team is brimming with talent and for Scotland to take the game to them is a statement of just how special they are. We could talk about the U21 talent we currently have in our ranks, but this is nothing if they can’t form a cohesive unit, execute a game plan and ultimately win games. Gemmill’s side have proven they can do all three which bodes well for us going forward given how young some of these players are.
They’ve shown a bit of everything this tournament. The young squad certainly weren’t at their best against Togo in the opening game but proved they were able to dig in and still get a result. Furthermore, the games against France and South Korea were not only impressive performances but highlighted the quality Gemmill has at his disposal. If you want a brief snippet of that you only have to watch Burke’s strike against Les Bleus or his and Billy Gilmour’s goals against South Korea.
But what about the performance against England I hear you cry? Sure, the second half performance wasn’t good enough and was extremely disappointing. However, this is a young group that still have a lot to learn and who also played four matches in a very short space of time. Some may see it as making excuses, but the young men in dark blue did look fatigued during the semi-final which is hardly surprising given the gruelling schedule.
It’s hard not to get excited about some of the players in this U21 side. Billy Gilmour is only 16 years old but makes everything he does look so easy. It’s as if time stops when he has the ball at his feet; he never seems rushed. Similarly, Scotland also have Alan Campbell in the middle of the park who’s had a breakout season at Motherwell. The pair make up part of a formidable midfield.
Similarly, Celtic’s Johnston is the kind of winger you’d love to have in your squad: pacy, great with the ball at his feet and capable of producing an end product. Fraser Hornby led the line well for Scotland and he too is only 18 years old. Meanwhile in defence Ryan Porteous will surely be knocking on the door of a starting place for Hibs next season whilst Greg Taylor already impressed last campaign for Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock.
It’d be easy to go on given that this squad is brimming with talent. What’s even more exciting? The average age of this squad is 19.2 years. Sure we might not see Burke playing at U21 level again, but many of his peers who have lit up the Toulon Tournament will be back again next year to try and take the next step and make the final.