WHEN a newspaper manages to become part of the hoopla surrounding a major international event it’s entitled to consider it a job well done.

The National’s front page last week on the eve of England’s epoch-defining European Championship final against Italy did this and then some. It breenged into the pre-match build-up, knocking aside some of England’s storied newspaper titles as it did so.

What The Times or The Mail or The Telegraph wouldn’t have given for the coach and the team captain of Italy or England to have spent some time discussing the aesthetics of their publication’s front page at the big pre-match press conference. These papers had waited 55 years for this moment to arrive and when it did the UK’s only pro-Scottish independence daily comes along and wrecks the joint.

My first response on seeing The National’s Roberto Mancini Braveheart poster front page was to cheer. This is what you live for in newspapers. That your title provokes a public reaction from the main players in the year’s major cultural drama.

The National:

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A much-loved former professor of journalism and a grizzled veteran of the trade himself always opened his courses with this abiding truth about the print game. “The principal aim of all newspapers is to sell more copies of their title than their rivals,” he told us. “It’s lovely to hold public figures to account and to provide learned analysis of the day’s big events. But what’s the point of that if no-one’s buying the paper?”

Since its founding in 2015 The National has bucked the UK-wide trend of declining newspaper sales. With more than 12,000 digital subscriptions alone (and climbing) it’s now firmly established in Scotland’s media firmament across every publishing platform.

And a lot of other people read last Saturday’s National, including about half of Italy. Among them were the Italian national football team boss, Roberto Mancini, who was pictured with the paper beside him along with the beautiful old European Championship trophy which his side had just won the previous night against England.

The other main purpose of a newspaper is to provoke a response. Any front page that leaves no room for neutrality or indifference has succeeded. Everyone who saw our Mancini/Braveheart front last week was either tickled by it or enraged by it. Predictably, many of those who laboured to be offended by it entirely missed the point.

These people lamented the “anyone but England” attitude they felt it transmitted. Several commentators spoke of their disgust at such immature, small-mindedness. The most comically po-faced among them worked themselves up into a real old lather. The National’s front page pointed to something depressing in the Scottish psyche, they told us. I marvelled that they could even write such unadulterated drivel from their darkened rooms as they were enduring the dark night of their Scottish souls. Bless them.

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Calm down chaps; it was only a cheeky newspaper front page. Let me guide you through it once more. But first, go and make yourself a nice cup of tea and maybe have a wee biscuit so you’re ready for this. Here are the offending words: Save us Roberto, you’re our … FINAL HOPE. (We can’t take another 55 years of them banging on about this).

Of course, this poked fun at the way the English media waste no opportunity to remind the rest of the UK that England won the World Cup in 1966 and that “football’s coming home”. They persistently ignore the fact England’s international football teams are the biggest under-achievers since the hare was beaten by the tortoise at the Greek Animal Olympics in 624 BC.

But our front page also lampooned Scotland. It caricatured the Braveheart spirit. We fail so badly and so often in these tournaments that this is all we have left: to have a bit of fun at the expense of our much bigger, much more successful and far better dressed southern neighbours.

IT’S nothing to do with independence or insecurity; it’s not because of unresolved dad issues lurking in our subconscious. It’s because we’re absolutely shite at this level and England are really rather good right now.

And it’s because their chief propagandists are faintly ridiculous in their sense of entitlement. Ask any Rangers fan about people like me banging on about Celtic’s 1967 European Cup victory. As I’ve now just done again for about the 10,000th time.

Those among Scotland’s commentariat who laboured to affect formulaic disdain for The National’s front page know nothing of football and football culture. They would tremble and fret at the prospect of attending an actual game. At some point in their newspaper journeys they decided to ditch the desire to challenge power and now live to be weekend Hemingways at dinner parties in Hyndland, Strathbungo and the New Town.

Here they all decide what they consider to be beneath their approximation of what cool and progressive Scotland should look like. And it certainly doesn’t look like a front page mock-up of Roberto Mancini as Mel Gibson as William Wallace in a contrived Hollywood epic.

Others are so obsessive in their desire to attach anything negative about Scottish independence that they use microscopes to inspect every sentence and nuance for signs of beastliness. There was a lot of this evident in responses to The National’s front page.

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There’s actually a lot to like about the England international side in 2021 on both sporting and human levels. I watched the Copa America final between Brazil and Argentina on Saturday and have never seen both these great footballing nations look so poor at the same time. And while all of England’s major European rivals – including Italy – are beginning to age, England, with seven players still eligible to play for the under-21s, have the makings of a team that could win the World Cup next year.

At the age of 23, Marcus Rashford is facing down the evil of racism and winning. England should be proud of him. Hell, Scotland’s proud of him. And that’s because this is much more important than an international football tournament and all the daft geopolitical rivalries that accompany it.

So, I hope The National’s art department is already working up a few similar options for next year in Qatar. Maybe it could do Roberto Mancini as Peter O’Toole playing Lawrence of Arabia with a big Saltire on his cloak as he’s roaming around that desert on his camel.

Maybe not!