After the toil and tumult, came the tears. As his colleagues bounded jubilantly towards their stoic goalkeeper David Marshall to rejoice in Scotland’s almost otherworldly qualification for Euro 2020, Ryan Christie dropped to his knees in a promo jacket, emotionally and physically lowered by the magnitude of the moment.
The tears fell from his face amid the incessant drizzle of Belgrade as Christie’s mood mimicked the ghostly surroundings. At once, it was a hallowed and haunted piece of sporting theatre that will live long in the memory. Certainly far beyond the mere nuts and bolts of a play-off final amid these cursed times.
The energised Celtic midfielder had struck to hand Scotland a merited lead against Serbia early in the second half. It seemed likely to provide his country with a path back to a major tournament for the first time in 22 years until Luka Jović of Real Madrid headed home with two minutes remaining to plunge a fraught evening into severe doubt.
Having been substituted with seconds remaining, Christie and his colleagues were forced to endure a torrid 30 minutes of extra-time and penalties as a plaything in the hands of fate until Marshall leapt to his left to deny Aleksandar Mitrović with the 10th and fateful final penalty kick of a contest Steve Clarke's side somehow failed to finalise in normal time.
Scotland last jousted at a major tournament on 23 June 1998 when they were overrun 3-0 by Morocco to tumble out of the World Cup finals in France. Christie was only three at the time. There was a maturity and meaning to his words beyond a mere football match in the aftermath. In the year of the pandemic, surreal happenings continue to disturb him. Drama nor decorum eluded him without any hint of machismo.
“It’s an amazing night,” said Christie. “From the start, we believed. We’ve picked up so much belief in each other. Even the way the game went tonight in conceding that late equaliser, and still digging in. Those penalties are probably the worst thing I’ve ever been through. I’m gone.
“For the whole nation, it’s been a horrible year for everyone. We knew that before we came into the game we could give a little something to this country.
“I hope everyone back home is having a party because we deserve it after all the years.”
Christie speaks properly and thinks beyond the realms of kicking a ball. In a year in which over 50,000 people in the UK have perished in this ghastly pandemic, that is about enough to fill the empty Rajko Mitić Stadium, his thoughts clearly went far beyond a bewitching night for the soon to be dubbed Bravehearts of Belgrade.
Crying is healthy for the soul and also it attributes proper meaning to an occasion. It also releases anxiety and toxins in the body. The cynics who claim football players are only interested in money fail to appreciate or respect the fact that most footballers are fans in boots. Money does not buffet meaning. Christie was invested in the evening for a whole variety of reasons, mostly beyond the soaking pitch.
The Scotland manager Clarke and the Liverpool left-back Andy Robertson extolled similar thoughtful sentiment. Clarke has succeeded where previous national coaches such as Berti Vogts, Walter Smith, Alex McLeish, George Burley, Craig Levein and Gordon Strachan faltered. It is the defining moment of his distinguished 22-year coaching career and unlikely to be bettered.
“When Marshall saved it, I had a little glint in my eye,” said Clarke. “I managed to keep my emotions under check so I may have a little cry when I get back to my room later on.”
Robertson was struggling to find work in 2012, but eight years on has won the Champions League and Premier League with Liverpool. He is a man without ego. When he captains his country at the finals against Czech Republic, England and Croatia in June his heart will soar higher than a Liver bird.
“Emotionally so bad, tears everywhere, but these lads deserve it,” said Robertson. “We felt coming over here in a tough time that we could give everyone a lift. After 23 years, we’ve done it. I don't even want to think about it because I'll probably cry.”
The key to Scotland's success is their humanity, in possessing a group of players who do not see themselves above the well-being of the group. The good-natured Scott McTominay, who fairly walloped home a penalty, is only 23, but looks to have solved his country's lengthy need for a centre-half despite operating in midfield for Manchester United. His passion to perform makes him a stand-out figure beyond his penchant for spinning Future and Roddy Ricch tunes as a DJ which he admits his Scotland team-mates "don't like".
There is a uniqueness about such a thoughtful group. Professional sport remains distinct in its ability to throw up some moments of genuine, striking, inimitable theatre, but while there is a time to strive, succeed and celebrate, there is also a time to let go, to open up bottled-up anxiety and stress.
Scotland’s tear-stained glory in Belgrade was a thing of raw beauty, but reminded us why we continue to cherish the world game in its purest form. In these times, the wonder of football remains a much-needed therapy.