The 150th anniversary meeting doesn’t feel like the biggest game for Steve Clarke’s men, and not just this year, this month or this week. It doesn’t even feel like their biggest game on the very day of it. As the nipping neighbours joust at Hampden with nothing on the line competitively, Norway will be hosting Georgia in an encounter with huge implications for Scotland. If that ends in a draw, Clarke’s side will become the first team outside of host nation Germany to be guaranteed a place in next summer’s Euro 2024 finals. To bring to an end a 26-year absence of the nation in a major finals staged overseas.
The backdrop to Tuesday evening gives rise to a delicious hypothetical for Scotland’s midfield orchestrator Callum McGregor to ponder. If allowed only one of either the draw in Oslo that would secure Scotland’s presence in Germany, or a win over bitterest rivals England, what would he plump for? An awkward poser, in theory, with a trip to Spain up next for Scotland as their third last Group A game in a currently faultless, five-match qualifying campaign. In practice, though, it didn’t prove so for the Celtic captain. “That’s an easy one – us beating England,” said the 30-year-old without a millisecond’s hesitation. “Because then we can just win the next game and we will qualify anyway. It doesn’t really matter when you qualify, you have to get enough points. If that happens tomorrow night then great. But I would much rather win the game that I am playing in, especially when it is such a big fixture. We then have three more games to qualify after that and we will deal with that when it comes.”
It has been 38 years since Scotland last defeated England on home soil. Although, in fairness, they have only faced them five times in such circumstances since a 1-0 victory in 1985 that came towards the end of them going at it on an annual basis. McGregor has no memories even of Scotland’s most recent win in the fixture, which came in November 1999 at Wembley – when he was only six – and so didn’t grow up with the all-consuming nature of the enmity between them as once existed. Yet, he understands sociopolitical dimensions come into play as much as any on-pitch context when the pair are pitted against each other, and would put “right up there” a triumph over England being lodged in his career CV. His only experience of the confrontation the scoreless draw at Wembley in the delayed Euro 2020 finals group tie 27 months ago.
“You see the Scotland-England divide, it is always there in all aspects of life. You see that,” he said. “My dad never shuts up talking about the Scotland v England game. It will be much the same. I have heard enough about it in the weeks leading up to this game. I am sure he will be excited tomorrow night. But us as players, it is a big game, we understand what it means to the supporters, of course. When it comes to these sort of derby games, you are playing for the supporters. Of course, you are playing for yourself and everything that goes with that. But, ultimately, you are there representing the country and representing every Scotland fan, who would love to be on the pitch and do anything to get on the pitch. You have to have that in mind as well.”