MORE than a few Unionists still believe that Alex Salmond insisted on 2014 as the date for the first independence referendum owing to its proximity to Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games. The former First Minister, they claimed, would leverage

every life-affirming ounce of that sporting pageant to portray Scotland as a sophisticated and well-organised modern entity requiring no-one’s assistance in making big things happen.

If this had been one of the primary motivations for choosing that date then Salmond was simply pursuing a route well-travelled by the forces of Unionism.

Nothing is considered off-limits, inappropriate or too shallow to convey a sense of patriotic, British pride. American presidents who take the nation to war are invariably considered to be successful presidents. Margaret Thatcher obviously agreed. Would she have waged war so enthusiastically against Argentina in the South Atlantic if her poll ratings hadn’t been so poor at that point?

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England’s hosting of the 1966 World Cup and the optimism surrounding it was partly credited with Harold Wilson sweeping to power earlier that year with the biggest Labour majority since 1945. This isn’t a fanciful claim. England’s exploits were seen as a triumph for working-class people in an age when top-class footballers still lived in the communities that bore them. For the first time, English sporting success belonged to young men with regional, unpolished accents and Wilson moved adroitly to hitch Labour’s wagon to Sir Alf Ramsay’s Wembley heroes.

Although Wilson hailed from Huddersfield, a northern enclave still dining out on the fading memories of their team’s three successive league titles 40 years earlier, this scholarly “lad o’ pairts” was not especially known for his devotion to football. Yet, he had abruptly interrupted important government business in Washington to be present at Wembley on July 30. Later, he said: “I was a bit shattered it went into extra-time. I said it would be 2-1 and I was only one minute out!”

Very few Tories would have attempted to risk uttering a sentence like that for fear of getting the phraseology all wrong.

Perhaps I stand accused here, of reverting to a Scottish football type. Here we are, having succeeded merely in reaching the foothills of qualifying for a World Cup, and I’m already talking about finals. Yet, it’s such a long time since the nation has experienced such a collective sense of wellbeing and optimism about the national football team’s endeavours that we can be forgiven perhaps, for dreaming. Simply qualifying for the World Cup finals in Qatar next November will feel like winning it.

And if we do succeed in reaching this Promised Land then I’d expect Nicola Sturgeon to leverage every possible drop from it. Our First Minister showed a clean and elegant pair of heels to all other British politicians in stamping her presence all over COP26, despite not having any official function to be there beyond a presentational one. So, I’d be ensuring that she displays similar enthusiastic acumen in commandeering the feel-good benefits of a successful international football team.

Nor is there anything tawdry or manipulative about this. Football is not merely Scotland’s national sport and pastime, it reflects something within our national character; of what we feel about ourselves as a people and a nation. This, I think, holds true even if you are not a committed aficionado of the game. In the same way that many of us who had never lifted a racket thrilled to Andy Murray’s emergence as a world-class tennis player so does Scottish footballing success has the power of dreams.

The National:

If you doubt that this is so then ask yourself why the world’s leading brands spend billions of pounds each year to be associated with football success. It conveys a sense of physical and mental health, vibrancy and self-confidence. These are transferable into the realm of national pride. Rather than disdain this as something flimsy and transitory we should embrace it as profound and real.

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Our national obsession with football conveys something quite innocent and unsullied. It stems from local communities taking pride in the deeds of young, working-class men at a time when society offered people from this background few other opportunities to shine.

And I’m not accepting anything supercilious and haughty about modern footballers and their millionaire lifestyles. I’m always cheered by stories of young men from working-class backgrounds extracting every penny possible from the corporate predators who own large football clubs. What’s not to like? This sport is one of the very few spheres where working-class people can become rich beyond their dreams. And besides, their short careers are eternal prey to external forces that can cut them short at a moment’s notice.

IN the years since Scotland last competed well at this level the World Cup has grown to become the most compelling sporting and cultural festival on Earth. All nations stake a measure of their national pride on how their teams perform at it. Those of their citizens who travel to these tournaments quickly turn them into festivals of national identity. No-one who observes the pageantry of national symbols in these crowds doubts that they belong to countries with a set of characteristics unique to them. They’re all assumed to be “bold, independent, unconquer’d and free”.

Countries we often patronise as under-developed or which we too easily associate exclusively with chaos turn up at these events with smiles on their faces. This isn’t merely to apply a gloss to the suffering they endure at home, it’s to say to the world that they are more than this. That, even in the most straitened and inclement economic circumstances, they can derive pride from who they are and where they have come from. They have an older and robust identity and self-confidence that endures beyond adversity. They have hope.

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And while all this has been happening for the last 23 years Scotland hasn’t featured. All these opportunities to show that we are a single nation with an ancient collection of unique characteristics forged in both triumph and adversity have passed us by. That, like all these other nations we too are “bold, independent, unconquer’d and free”.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. But I’ve been watching the pitiful progress of Scotland’s national team for a generation.

And this young team, right now, makes me feel more optimistic than at any other time since Denis Law and Billy Bremner and Kenny Dalglish were wearing that dark blue shirt. Nicola Sturgeon needs to get right in about this.