So, on Friday we were gather for A's birthday party, when G noted that Scotland were winning 1-0 in Wales. "It won't last," said I. At this point, I was chided for my lack of optimism.
Of course, Scotland duly went on to lose the match 2-1. Called it.
Unfortunately, not only did I call that result, but I also called the outcome of this qualifying campaign some two years ago. While it's not mathematically impossible, we can be reasonably certain that we won't be qualifying for the World Cup. (Of course, that's only half my prediction - there's still Euro 2016 to look forward to missing.)
The problem is as that other noted pessimist, Hugh Keevins, noted prior to the first two matches: anything less than six points was not enough (and we got 2). Scotland need to be winning all our home matches and we need to be winning all our matches against the so-called "lesser" teams (that is, in terms of the group, not relative to us, since they're not). The manager might claim that he doesn't do "must win" matches... but that is what they are.
The thing is, it works like this: in any group there will almost inevitably be one team that you can look at and say with confidence that they will qualify, they will win the group, and they will do it with near-maximum points. Then, there will be another one or two who will be vying for that second spot, and the second qualifying (or even just play-off) place that that brings. And then there's the rest.
(And that means no disrespect to "the rest". Every other nation doing exactly the same calculation will count Scotland amongst "the rest".)
So, in order to qualify, you really need to build it on a platform of winning all your home matches (except perhaps against the 'big' team), and winning all your matches against "the rest". Do that, and you're pretty much there. Fail to do that, and you'll always be behind.
Scotland, by contrast, seem to be pretty good at punching above our weight against bigger teams, but really toil against any team we are 'expected' to beat - wins become draws, draws become losses, and before we know it, we're out of the running.
But that's not a sign of a good team. It's the sign of a bad team who raise their game on occasion. And it's a sign of a team that won't ever get anywhere. See, despite appearances, it's not your results against the bigger teams that matter most towards your qualification or not, it is your consistency against the so-called smaller teams. Those put you in the mix for qualfication, with the bigger results sending you over the top. But without those results putting you in the mix in the first place, you're just nowhere.
In which case, I would submit that the answer is this: every match is a "must win". And when playing one of the so-called smaller teams that's not an excuse to get complacent - in those matches it is vitally important that you put them to the sword. In fact, a ropey 1-0 win isn't enough. If you're serious about qualification, your goal should not be to beat Macedonia, the goal should be to thrash Macedonia.
Of course, that's not going to happen. Because we're just not good enough. As things stand, Macedonia are the only team lower than Scotland in our group, and deservedly so. There are no "smaller" teams, because we're actually almost as small as they come.
Bottom line: I stand by my prediction that we're not going to the World Cup, we won't be going to the Euros... and changing the manager won't help in the slightest. Shame.
#40: "Winter Witch", by Elaine Cunningham