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Marshall moment puts Scotland back in the big time

Scotland's emotional triumph in Belgrade will live long in the memory.

Marshall moment puts Scotland back in the big time SNS Group

It’s all there in that pause.

David Marshall, having just defied Aleksandar Mitrovic to give Scotland a 5-4 penalty shoot-out win over Serbia, paused for a moment.

Millions at home were ecstatic, making their journey from sofa to ceiling with hearts bursting, screaming in unison.

But Marshall wasn’t cheering. Not yet. As his teammates rushed from the half-way line to congratulate him, he was still checking with the referee that there was no problem.

It’s all there in the look on his face, that he can’t permit himself to let go until he knows there’s no late twist, like there always seems to be.

No infringement we missed? No reason to retake? Thumbs up? Really? We’re going to the Euros, yes?

Yes.

Yaaaasss!

Party time.

The night had started with the news that Ryan Christie, Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson would return to the Scotland line-up.

Standard team news. Mundane. Routine. Verging on boring, even if the team was facing Serbia in the play-off final.

Scotland doesn’t do boring. Anyone who has followed the attempts to reach a major finals since 1998 knows that emotions would be played with, nerves would be shredded and credulity would be tested. Same as it ever was.

There was, of course, the big tease. The lulling into a sense of security. Not just a “We’re doing okay here” or “We might nick this”.

It was no hit and hope, no rope-a-dope. Just a calm, controlled, mature performance. A lovely, wonderful, clever goal to take the lead against a Serbia team that we expected to have the edge when it came to scoring clever, technical goals.

And after that, a solid defence. Scotland not exactly dominating but in control. A back three nobody would have predicted six months ago were repelling anything that came near. Ryan Jack and Callum McGregor, drawn from opposing side of the Glasgow divide, were working in tandem to police the midfield.  Christie rode challenges and stretched play, John McGinn disrupted and pressed while Lyndon Dykes won headers, held the ball up and generally rattled cages.

Then, when all seemed under control and the seconds were ticking down towards celebration, came the disaster. A last-gasp Serbia attack brought a corner, the taker found Luka Jovic and his header met the turf before bouncing up past Marshall and into the top corner.

Extra time beckoned and Scottish hopes were fading as the hosts, buoyed by their equaliser, took the initiative. With the best attacking outlets back on the bench having done their shift, Scotland were virtually clinging on and it took a superb save from Marshall to keep out Nemanja Gudelj’s powerful drive. A formidable defence held strong and penalties, rather than being feared were welcomed by Scottish fans.

As in the semi-final against Israel, all five Scotland players did their duty with precision or power or both, and Marshall had his golden moment.

Watching the goalkeeper and his teammates celebrate after the decisive kick was only the beginning of an outpouring of relief and joy in Belgrade and back home.

Ryan Christie gave a tearful, choked interview where he showed that qualification meant to the players exactly what it meant to the fans. At a time when disconnect and isolation are commonplace, team and fans seemed connected even though supporters were stuck at home.

Captain Andy Robertson took his turn, saying he hoped the achievement would help put smiles on faces back home.

It helped that the game was made free-to-air by Sky, opening up a must-see spectacle to an audience only invested in the highest-stakes games  STV, confident that Scotland would make it through, was letting the eager fans scout out England ahead of the (live on STV) clash on June 18.

And once the tears had been wiped away and the rawness of the moment had subsided, they celebrated like we wanted to.

We saw a new national anthem being declared and, later, the David Marshall conga to the tune of Whigfield’s Saturday Night being an utterly ridiculous but perfectly correct response to a moment we won’t forget.

Fans looked out their windows and saw pipers playing and heard fellow Scots cheering and singing. Social media, the virtual window, showed a nation united in joy, as well as the customary setting of the moment to Titanic theme. Politicians and celebrities congratulated the team, and there was even time for deep weirdness.

Uri Geller, who claimed to have caused Gary McAllister to miss a penalty last time Scotland were at the Euros, popped up to try and take credit for Marshall besting Mitrovic. Why the Israeli mystic thinks there’s a deep bond between psychokinesis and UEFA’s flagship tournament nobody knows, but when he invited fans to join him in on Lamb Island, supporters were quick to remind him that they still held a 24-year-aged beef.

Elsewhere, other faces familiar from 1996 got straight to work helping motivate the Scotland players to make more history when next summer comes around.

One moment had turned everything from looking back and adding up the years of failure to counting down the days until the Euros would begin again. Fans discussed the trivial (home advantage in two games) and the hugely important (Scotland in the Panini sticker album).

By the time Scotland step out in their first game of Euro 2020, it will have been 23 years since the last great party of the Tartan Army and now the planning starts for the next.

Between then and now there will be news on fans returning to stadia, and speculation about which players will make the cut, and worries about how exactly we approach a group with two of the World Cup semi-finalists in it.

For now, it’s enough to reflect on a night that ended the longest and most agonising of waits.

Take pause and enjoy it.