Scotland’s big hitters failed to turn up at Euros … but it’s not the end of the road for an ageing side just yet

What are we to make of this Scotland team? The nearly men? All talk and no trousers? Certainly, for the second time in three years, this group of players have merely made up the numbers at a major tournament despite promising so much more.

All the chat about trying to create history and reach the knockout stages for the first time felt cheap and hollow come full-time against Hungary on Sunday night, almost like a pipe dream.

It was all so different barely a fortnight ago. Even a couple of laboured performances against Gibraltar and Finland in the warm-up games couldn’t dilute the excitement and optimism surging through the country.

As Steve Clarke’s side headed off to Euro 2024, there seemed to be a genuine belief that this could finally be the year where Scotland go that one step further.

But if Scotland were hit with a major reality check on the opening night against Germany, those feelings hadn’t dissipated much by the time their early exit was confirmed just over a week later. As always with these things, major questions will now be asked, not only in terms of where it all went wrong, but also in terms of how this team moves forward after such a crushing disappointment.

Later this year, in September, Scotland will embark on a Nations League campaign as one of the so-called big guns in League A, where they will face Poland, Portugal and Croatia.

The Scotland players applaud the Tartan Army after losing 1-0 Hungary on Sunday night

Scotland skipper Andy Robertson is embraced by his manager Steve Clarke at the end

Scotland skipper Andy Robertson is embraced by his manager Steve Clarke at the end

The anguish is almost too much to take for Scotland defender Jack Hendry in Stuttgart

The anguish is almost too much to take for Scotland defender Jack Hendry in Stuttgart

Frankly, such has been the pain inflicted on Scotland in these Euros, and such has been the regression in this team over the last year, only the masochists in the Tartan Army will be looking forward to those fixtures.

In Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric, Poland, Portugal and Croatia have three genuine A-listers, players who seem to have defied the logic of Father Time. Whether those three stick around for another crack at the Nations League and another major tournament remains to be seen, but it feels unlikely.

Modric is 38 now and will be 39 by the time Croatia face Scotland in October. Likewise, Ronaldo is 39. Lewandowski will turn 36 in August.

Yet, beyond the possibility of facing some ageing superstars in the near future, Scotland must also look at themselves. How will they shape up for those games? How does Clarke re-energise this squad after such a bitter disappointment?

Where do Scotland go from here? Is it out with the old and in with the new? Are this group of players now over the hill and past their sell-by date? All valid questions. There are some players in this squad who may well have experienced a major tournament for the last time.

Grant Hanley is 32 and has been plagued by injuries over the past year. He can’t go on forever. Likewise Liam Cooper, another 32-year-old centre-back who didn’t play at all across the three games in Germany.

Kenny McLean, Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Jack and James Forrest are all the wrong side of 30. So, too, is Callum McGregor, who turned 31 on the day Scotland were thumped 5-1 against Germany.

Andy Robertson is 30. John McGinn will be 30 in October later this year. Time hasn’t quite run out for some of the key players in this Scotland team, but the hands of Old Father Time are creeping up on them.

They aren’t over the hill. The likes of Robertson and McGinn will have another tournament in them, maybe two if they stay fit and healthy.

Scotland aren’t quite a spent force in terms of the age and profile of this squad. No, instead, they are a team who have lost their mojo quite spectacularly over this past year or so.

Clarke will rightly shoulder much of the blame for his negative approach. But the players also need to be honest and admit they underperformed.

Just three or four years ago, a rampaging Robertson was the best left-back in Europe. We saw it time and again for Liverpool in the Premier League and Champions League.

Now? He looks a shadow of himself. There were times against Hungary on Sunday night when the Scotland captain struggled to even get over the halfway line.

Is that a reflection of him, or of what he’s being asked to do by Clarke? In any case, Scotland can’t afford one of their key players to be so quiet and ineffectual. McGinn also had a quiet tournament by his own high standards. So often Scotland’s talisman over the years, his impact was minimal.

Even the prolific Scott McTominay couldn't find the net against the Hungarians

Even the prolific Scott McTominay couldn’t find the net against the Hungarians

Certainly, he didn’t look like the same player who had been so instrumental in driving Aston Villa to Champions League qualification last season.

McGregor had a poor tournament as well. So often a model of consistency for club and country, the Celtic captain was unusually wasteful with the ball over the three games and slack in his defensive work.

Truthfully, you could make a case for the vast majority of the Scotland players being well below their best. It would only be Billy Gimour who really earned pass marks in terms of the key players. And therein lies the problem.

As much as fans will point the finger at Clarke and his tactics, too many of Scotland’s big hitters didn’t turn up. Especially in the game against Hungary. When Scotland knew it was win-or-bust, they delivered a feeble performance.

Clarke has been loyal to this group. Perhaps too loyal at times. It is inevitable there will need to be some kind of reset after the Euros, in terms of personnel and perhaps also in terms of tactics.

Clarke has been tactically rigid and it has been to Scotland’s detriment. He point-blank refused to change from three at the back when it patently wasn’t working.

Doing the same thing over and over again in the hope of a different outcome? Madness, is it not? Certainly, at some point over the past year or so, things have gone horribly wrong for Clarke.

With the likes of Aaron Hickey and Lewis Ferguson to come back into this squad, that’s two players still in their early to mid-20s with a lot to offer. Ben Doak is a huge talent at just 18. How Clarke integrates him into this team tactically will be fascinating.

So it would be wrong for anyone to write the obituaries for this Scotland squad just yet. They have talent and players who still have more to give.

But the key to unlocking all of that will rest with Clarke. If he shows more ambition and greater tactical flexibility, we might just have a chance.

If not, it’s not hard to see how this ends. If Scotland suffer a few Nations League hammerings before the year is out, the mood music could turn very dark indeed.

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