A recycled move saw Jack Hendry’s swept shot hit the bar. Then Andy Robertson’s raked through ball from deep forced Tomas Kalas into a slice clearance that his keeper Tomas Vaclik had to desperately claw out. Within five minutes of the second half, Scotland had already created more problems for the Czech Republic than they did in the first half.
As the clock ticked to 50, with Grant Hanley receiving treatment on his ankle, “Flower of Scotland” started up in the stands. The crowd had been in place almost an hour before kick-off, ramping up the noise with songs old and new. Songs that seemed to almost exclusively feature choruses, such was the way every note was bellowed. And with the home side twice coming close to an equaliser, here was a moment for those in the stands to do their bit to maintain the pressure. Sure, Scotland were 1-0 down, but it didn’t need to feel like they were 1-0 down.
So as the game resumed, with blue shirts piling forward and white shirts pushed back with the crescendo of noise, another attempt from Hendry was blocked, cannoning back towards the defender’s goal. Given the 80 yards between him and the goal, there seemed no immediate danger. What Hendry, his team-mates, those in the stands and us watching did not realise was that Patrik Schick was going to take 50 of those yards out of the equation with one devastating swish of his left foot.
Official records say no goal has been scored from a greater distance at a major tournament since 1980. The clarity of thought and execution for the first-time shot was remarkable, as were the photographs that captured the distance, elevation, curve and look of anxiety on David Marshall’s face as he set off on an unwinnable race back to his own goal before suffering the ultimate fisherman’s betrayal of being caught in his own net.
But the true gravity and shock of Schick’s goal was captured in the sudden death of an atmosphere that had been 23-years in the making. It was as if someone had stuck the nozzle of a vacuum onto the side of Hampden Park and sucked out the joy in an instant. The jolt from optimism and devastation elicited by the Bayer Leverkusen striker so sharp it would give you emotional whiplash. A goal worthy of ruining any party.
The cynical Scottish fan will tell you they saw this coming. That, of course, such a beautiful moment of ingenuity would come at their expense. The goal of the tournament three days in? From 50 yards? To be repeated until the end of time? Against *us*, you say? Why not.
Glasgow was almost deathly quiet by its usual standards on Sunday night. A surprise given the country has been without men’s international tournament football since 1998. Why not wet the whistle before the big day? After all, Christmas Eve is often a lot more fun than Christmas Day.
Much has been made of the generations of Scots that know nothing of the men’s side’s successes, or even their failures on the stages that required success to get there. And some might say those three seconds the ball was in the air from Schick’s boot was a snapshot of what football at this level brings: the microcosm of hope, expectation and devastation. Because at different points, Schick had too much to do, Marshall was getting there and then, ball and keeper as one in the back of the net. Czech Republic 2-0 up and Scotland down and out with 38 minutes still to play.
That made it worse. Steve Clarke’s men pushed to get back in it, but never truly believed they could. Partly because they were out of ideas as their opponents developed greater control in midfield. But also because they were stung by, technically, the quickest and most efficient counter-attack possible.
It was a peculiar kind of trepidation. Schick’s brilliance seemed to have created an extra layer of fear in Scotland, as if another moment of genius could hit them at any time. They wandered through the rest of the second half with the paranoia that it could happen again. Had the Czech Republic not been satisfied, they could have utilised that angst to grab a third.
The final whistle came and those Scotland fans departed, the silence they left behind a reminder of the brilliance that hurt them so. A meeting with England at Wembley on Friday brings with it its own backstory, while the Czechs stay up here to take on Croatia with a view to sealing their qualification out of Group D. By the time Scotland return to Glasgow, they will likely need to beat Croatia to give themselvesves a sniff of getting through as one of the best third-placed sides.
On Sunday's evidence, it is hard to look that far ahead and see anything but further disappointment. This was a reminder that enthusiasm from the sidelines can only go so far to influencing play on the field. And Schick's wonder strike showed how brittle that can be, too.