AS the seconds ticked down on the digital scoreboard clock high above Scott Booth in the Stade Geoffrey-Guichard, his chance finally came. It was one that he had, like every fitba-daft boy from his country both before him and since, dreamed of. To play for Scotland in the World Cup finals.
Yet, his outing against Morocco at France ’98 in Saint-Etienne 20 years ago today proved to be far from the experience he had envisaged it would be.
The national team, chasing a win they hoped would send them through to the knockout stages of the competition for the first time in their history, had been reduced to 10 men with the first-half red carding of Craig Burley and were trailing 2-0. There was little prospect of the substitute netting the goals which would secure a last 16 spot in the seven or so minutes he was on the park.
Salaheddine Bassir, who had opened the scoring, notched another for the African side before the final whistle blew. The striker trudged off the field alongside his shellshocked team mates with the abuse of their own supporters ringing in their ears.
To cap it all, Norway recorded a surprise 2-1 win over eventual finalists Brazil in the Stade Veledrome in Marseille in the other Group A match that evening to render their result utterly meaningless. Even a triumph would have been in vain. All in all, it was a miserable, not a memorable, night.
“Every player who goes to the World Cup hopes they can get as much game time as possible and the team is as successful as they can be,” said Booth as he looked back on his appearance in the tournament earlier this week.
“For me, it was a little bit frustrating that when I did get an opportunity the game was already dead. That was quite difficult. The World Cup was a place I wanted to challenge myself. It was disappointing that I didn’t get that much of a chance.
“Do you know something? It is all a bit of blur. I can’t remember too much. I haven’t watched the game since. I don’t suppose you watch games like that back do you? It seemed to come and go very, very quickly. I just remember great disappointment overall. You could tell it was the end. You could see it coming.”
The passage of time, though, has helped Booth to view his involvement slightly differently. He is the last player to feature for Scotland in the finals of either the European Championship or the World Cup. Two decades of failure, foul-ups and frustration have made him realise how fortunate he was to feature, albeit only fleetingly, on such a stage.
“The whole experience, the build-up, being part of it, the games, was just amazing,” he said. “Nobody can take it away from you. I don’t make a big deal of it, don’t talk about it too much, don’t bring it up. But it is interesting when you watch the World Cup when it comes along every four years. It is amazing how it takes you back to the chance you were given. I was delighted to be there, to be part of it.”
With Kevin Gallacher, the Blackburn Rovers forward, netting on no fewer than six occasions in France ’98 qualifying and Gordon Durie, the Rangers player, displaying consistent form alongside him up front during that successful campaign, Booth understood that he was unlikely to be a regular starter.
Yet, he was better placed to cope with both the physical and mental demands of international football at the very highest level than he had been during the Euro ’96 finals in England two years earlier when he had kicked off the opening match against the Netherlands and then come on in the third and final game against Switzerland.
A free transfer from Aberdeen to Borussia Dortmund, who had, with no little help from Paul Lambert, just won the Champions League, the summer before had propelled him to a new level.
He had played for the German giants alongside the likes of Stephane Chapiusat, Andreas Moller and Matthias Sammer in the Bundesliga. He had scored against Sparta Prague during the defence of their European title. He had become the first and last footballer from this country to win the Intercontinental Cup.
A loan move to Utrecht in the Netherlands, where he quickly struck up a productive strike partnership with the future Rangers front man Michael Mols, had also proved beneficial.
“Without a doubt, I was better equipped to the World Cup finals at that time,” he said. “I was certainly more prepared for it than if I had stayed in Scotland that’s for sure.
“I had gone away and been through some highs and lows with Dortmund. Within three months of leaving Aberdeen I was in Tokyo at the World Club Cup. We played Cruzeiro of Brazil and beat them. I felt I had gone through quite a lot in a short space of time.
“In my time in Germany and Holland I became a much better player. I played at different clubs, learned different styles of football, worked with different managers, had different types of players around me. I got into the Scotland squad on the back of my performances at Utrecht.
“Every player is realistic about where they stand within a squad. I was always very realistic about where I was at France ‘98. I was delighted to be selected. But you always have to believe that if you get a chance you can take it. I had become a better professional.”
Booth, now manager of Glasgow City women’s team, believes that Scotland, who have come up short in 10 consecutive qualifying campaigns, would benefit greatly in future from more young players moving abroad to test themselves. He has been heartened to see Oliver Burke play for RB Leipzig in Germany, Liam Henderson move to Bari in Italy and David Bates seal a transfer to Hamburg in Germany.
“They have to find themselves in this country a bit first,” he said. “But if you get the chance in your twenties to go to a club in Europe it can only help you. At that stage you are ready to handle it emotionally and physically. It can only help you. Most overseas leagues will give you so much more knowledge of the game.”
After further spells at Vitesse Arnhem and FC Twente in the Netherlands, four further appearances for Scotland and a final season back at his home town club Aberdeen, Booth retired from playing. He has shown the same willingness to test himself with interesting new challenges in his career choices since.
He moved into media work with satellite broadcasters Setanta. He still provides occasional expert analysis on Dutch football for Sky Sports. But coaching was where he felt his future lay. After completing his qualifications he worked with Stenhousemuir and the Scotland age-group teams before accepting his current role with Glasgow City three years ago.
Some knuckle draggers may be dismissive of the women’s game, but Booth, having seen up close the ability, ambition and dedication of those involved during his time with the SFA, had no qualms about getting involved. He hasn’t had cause to regret his decision.
“I have never been afraid to try something new,” he said. “Every season is a new challenge in the women’s game. It is growing so quickly. There is more of it, the quality is improving drastically. It is really starting to impress a lot of people. It is getting stronger in Scotland.”
The same, alas, can’t be said of the men’s team who are watching the Russia 2018 finals on television. Scott Booth, still the last man to play for Scotland in the World Cup, has been glued to the action. His thoughts have inevitably drifted to his own experiences at France ’98.
“I am really enjoying the tournament,” he said. “It is a nice feeling to know I have been there and done that.”