“De Boer, Cocu, Overmars, Stam, Van der Sar… Israel aren’t that team. I hope there are other chances and I really believe there will be, but just approach it as if it’s your last chance.”
The euphoric high and the traumatic low of what happened 17 years ago still resonates with James McFadden.
His moment of brilliance gave Scotland a first-leg lead over a star-studded Netherlands team in a showdown for Euro 2004 qualification. From his Hampden heroics, though, all Berti Vogts’ men ended up with was devastating Dutch dejection.
It’s been a long, long wait but Scotland are again two matches from ending a 23-year hiatus from a major finals. Defeat Israel at Hampden on Thursday, then win in Norway or Serbia and Steve Clarke’s side will take part in next summer’s rescheduled Euro 2020.
To get in the mood, McFadden and former Scotland defender Steven Pressley relive that Dutch encounter and urge the current generation to make themselves legends.
‘The Best Feeling of Scoring a Goal’
The Dutch were unfathomably poor at Hampden. Their big names counted for absolutely nothing as they came up against an inspired Scotland with the full backing of a packed Hampden. That atmosphere was amplified when Everton’s McFadden buried an effort after 22 minutes.
McFadden: Everybody talks about my goal against France but I’d say that was my best feeling of scoring a goal. The crowd went wild! For the players, it was almost disbelief that we’d managed to take the lead and then obviously reality kicks in and you think ‘we’ve got a long way to go’.
Can we hold on, keep it at 1-0 and go away and maybe try to frustrate them? We managed to hold on, it was an incredible performance and an incredible feeling for me to score.
I knew the size of the game. I just didn’t ever think that would be the last chance to get as close as we did.
Pressley: I’m not a big fan of Hampden as the fans are not on top of the pitch, but on days like that it can be a special stadium. It was electric.
James was our talisman, a player that could change the game. Again, as he seemed to do in the big games, he came up with the big moment.
We got one of the hardest draws available and I think there was an expectation on Holland and less pressure on ourselves. But that turned after the first result. We went from a team where there was hope that we might have a chance, to a country that genuinely believed that we could qualify.
‘It’s just horrible to think Back’
A few days later, Vogts and his men made the short trip to Amsterdam, just 90 minutes and a clean sheet away from a major finals. What could go wrong?
Pressley: They had a lot of top-level players but they had a lot of disagreements within their squad. Their own nation had grown tired of them. They became a group under enormous pressure going into that second game.
McFadden: We knew we could beat them. That was the best Dutch side we could have faced [at Hampden]. The manager dropped a few star names and brought in this young guy that nobody had heard of – Wesley Sneijder. And we thought, right, their best players are out, this young guy can’t be that good…
Within 13 minutes, McFadden knew he’d underestimated Sneijder. He picked up the ball, spun around Neil McCann and slammed the ball past Rab Douglas from 25 yards. By half-time it was 3-0. By the 67th minute it was 6-0. A potentially career-defining evening turned into a humiliation.
Pressley: We didn’t show the mentality. We didn’t show resilience. I’ll always remember that night. After the sixth goal I looked up at the scoreboard and there was still 20 minutes remaining. That was the longest period of time. It’s something that has stuck with me.
McFadden: Defensively, as a whole team we were just really poor. You’re going from the euphoria of scoring in the first leg to the extreme lows of the second leg, thinking ‘just hold on and keep it at six’. I never really think about it, but now you’re bringing it up it triggers an emotion. It’s just horrible to think back.
‘Understand the size of the game, don’t be afraid of it’
Sorry, James… So with all of that in mind, what would your advice be for Scotland’s players as they take on Israel?
McFadden: Don’t expect that if you fail, you’ll get another chance. Every campaign I thought we’d get it next time. Next time never came.
Understand the size of the game, don’t be afraid of it, but recognise it might never come around again. Approach it as if you won’t get another chance. Go and win the game. Don’t expect a next time, do it now.