Three Reasons to Watch SWNT end their Euro Campaign

It would be fair to say that enthusiasm for Scotland’s final two, now redundant, Euro 2021(2) qualifiers is low. As top seeds Scotland were not only expected to qualify but to do so top of their group as a talented squad looked to recover from World Cup heartache. The form immediately followed that night in Paris pointed to things moving in the right direction. An 8-0 victory over Cyprus in front of a qualifying record crowd at Easter Road was swiftly followed by a 5-0 victory in Albania as Shelley Kerr and her side looked to build on the momentum the World Cup had brought.

Progress was still being achieved come March with victories over Ukraine, Iceland and Northern Ireland securing a first Pinatar Cup triumph before a global pandemic that we are all fed up of talking about halted proceedings. As football returned so eventually did SWNT and after a stuttering 3-0 victory at home to Albanian a run of three consecutive 1-0 defeats against qualification rivals Finland (twice) and Portugal brought a bitterly disappointing end to tournament hopes.

The aftermath saw Shelley Kerr step down and Men’s National U16 coach Stuart McLaren brought in on an interim basis for a trip to Cyprus where Scotland will not only face the groups bottom side but also Portugal in a re-located home tie as a campaign that offered so much hope comes to a surreal end. It’s the hope that kills you though so I have shaken off the malaise to dig out three reasons as to why you should make space in your diary to don the tartan face paint a couple more times.

  1. There is actually some football to watch (and we should at least win one of them).

Women’s football in Scotland has been in hibernation now since December 20th 2020 when a rearranged SWPL2 clash between Glasgow Women and St. Johnstone at New Tinto Park was the last match before a temporary halt came into effect. Much like the the rest of the domestic season there were no fans in attendance that day and with the scheduled winter break now over women’s football is still yet to return.

The WSL and its Scottish contingent has brought some nourishment to fans but the chance to get behind SWNT provides a first opportunity for most to get just a little bit excited. The kick off times – Scotland face Cyprus at 1pm this Friday and then Portugal at 3.10pm next Tuesday – are more of a hinderance than a help but with most still working from home excuses for an extended lunch break or two feel ready to be made. Despite the low-key nature of the build I’m looking forward to the games and I know I will feel a strange sense of comfort in hearing the lilting Gaelic tones of BBC Alba come Friday lunchtime.

Hosts Cyprus have yet to score this campaign and, barring a narrow 1-0 loss away to Portugal, have been comprehensively defeated. A win against the Cypriots should be a minimum requirement from the trip, even with a depleted squad and interim boss in charge, whilst the level of challenge presented by Portugal will be determined by the outcome of the Portuguese trip to Finland in a tie that will most likely determine who tops Group E to seal automatic qualification for the tournament finals. After such a torturous end to 2020, and despite a number of unusual circumstances surrounding the ties these next two games can be used as a springboard for a new era and, even if it feels like that new era is perhaps yet to begin, positive results from two games that would have been earmarked for victory when qualifying began will be no bad thing.

2. Caroline Weir is very good at football.

Filthy. That seemed to be the unifying term as women’s football social media, and beyond, waxed lyrical about yet another Caroline Weir wonder strike during a Manchester derby. Her season opener against United in 2019 earned the midfielder a Puskas Award nomination and her goal against the same opposition last Friday could easily be a contender once again. After using her range to nick the ball away from Jackie Groenen on the edge of the area she rolled the ball out of her feet. Nudging it half a pace forward she would look up before dinking the ball over a scrambling Mary Earps.

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It was a demonstration of elegant effortlessness that summed up everything that Weir the player has become and it seems strange now to think back to the start of this season when, with the arrival of World Cup winners Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis along with the continued rise of England international Keira Walsh, there was a fear that Weir would end up pushed to the fringes. Those fears have been well and truly put to bed with the Scot scoring five and assisting on three occasions as her side have rallied from a slow start to emerge as title contenders.

The absence of Kim Little should never be viewed as anything other than a blow but the Arsenal captain’s absence does open up the opportunity for Weir to play further up the pitch where most feel she does her best work, a combination of athleticism and vision that in the midst of Little’s latest spell out injured could begin a creative changing off the guard, or at the very least a more fulsome sharing of duties. Too often in this recent poor run of results for the national side Weir has found herself side-by-side with her teammates in the backline as she went searching for the ball but if Scotland are to succeed the midfielder has to be pushed further forward. Caroline Weir has always been a talent worth watching but in the last 18 months her game is no longer something you want to view but one that demands your attention.

3. Fringe Benefits

Hannah Godfrey, Kirsty Smith, Chloe Arthur, Kim Little, Christie Murray and the now retired Leanne Crichton were just six of the players unavailable to interim boss Stuart McLaren as he made his first national team selection but even with depleted reserves the squad selected contained more than a few surprises. There was the exclusion of Glasgow City’s left back/midfielder Hayley Lauder a player with over 100 caps to her name. In a squad that has been shorn of experience, particularly in midfield, it was a surprise not to see Lauder (with her return to full fitness at Glasgow City now complete) named and the decision by goalkeeping coach Fraser Stewart to advise McLaren that Rangers second choice Megan Cunningham, a fine keeper but one that has not played much football, as back up behind teammate Jenna Fife and established number one Lee Alexander left some scratching their heads.

The call up of Lisa Robertson has been met with broad acceptance, a reward for her energetic and goalscoring SWPL form at Celtic following her return north but she and team-mate Natalie Ross will be unlikely starters come what will be a hopeful appearance at the World Cup in 2023. With the stakes at the lowest they could possibly be it was surprising to not see more of Scotland’s up-and-coming stars gain some valuable experience at a time when the widely-known jump from U19’s to SWNT remains large. The absence of Jamie-Lee Napier, who has emerged as a key player on loan from Chelsea at a rejuvenated Birmingham City under Carla Ward is perhaps the biggest omission but touted prospects such as Hibernian’s Amy Muir and to a lesser extent Celtic goalkeeper Chloe Logan would surely have benefited from a week’s familiarity in the national team set up.

That being said there is still opportunities for those who have been on the fringes of play to make a case for more regular action. Rangers full-back Rachel McLauchlan could provide a dynamic attacking option and may be given an opportunity with Kirsty Smith out and Hibernian midfielder Rachael Boyle potentially needed in the middle of the park, a position where McLauchlan’s Rangers team-mate Sam Kerr will hope to build on the thirteen minutes she played against Ukraine during her debut in Spain last year. Kirsty Hanson and Martha Thomas, two players to have gained regular minutes after emerging last year, will hope to cement their places in the squad whilst Everton captain Lucy Graham will be hoping to get another chance to prove her worth after a disappointing return to the side against Albania following what had been a blistering start to the WSL season for her club.

How much these performances will mean to whoever takes on the role of rebuilding the national side remains to be seen, with the chance to bed in a new coach now having gone by, but even then these games should be seen as an opportunity for the healing to begin.

After the highs of the last four years now is the time where support for the women’s national side remains at it’s most vital. To follow in glory is easy, to stay loyal through despair, that is when your support should be at its greatest.

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