SCOTLAND – as a football team and a country – has waited too long to return to a major finals but that absence is now, finally, at an end.

The Tartan Army have been missed from tournament after tournament for the last 23 years and it will be great to see them back – albeit not in the numbers and manner in which we would like – in the matches against the Czech Republic, England and Croatia. This will be a wonderful time for Scottish football.

It has been a tough, tough two decades for us. You can look at different factors, such as the Bosman era, and find different reasons why our game fell away and why we fell short.

When players were coming in from abroad, that curtailed the development of younger players and you could cite the fall in street football, which was how so many of our great players learned their trade, as another reason why we couldn’t bring through the required quality of player.

There were some good teams that missed out on getting us back to a major finals. Craig Levein had a good squad and I inherited a great squad from Walter Smith but you look at the number of players we now have playing in the Premier League, the strongest league in the world, and that has enhanced the strength of the national team.

For a number of years, we relied on a core of Celtic players that were having a fantastic time domestically and performing in Europe but now that is augmented by players from down south, you have the likes of Nathan Patterson and Billy Gilmour coming in as well, and the future does look bright for Scotland again.

During my second spell in charge, it was tough at times to get a nucleus of players and build that momentum to take forward and, for me, that is something that has evolved these days and there are a number of guys that are playing at a very high level.

When I look back at my second stint as manager, I am proud of the victory that we achieved in the Nations League and that turned out to be massively important in terms of getting Scotland to where they are now.

In the games against Albania and Israel, who are a tough nut to crack, I think that was the only time I could select the same team. They were two fabulous performances and the result, to get us through to the play-offs, was the only thing that mattered.

I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t wish that it was me that was leading Scotland to the Euros this summer. That was always my ambition but it just wasn’t to be unfortunately.

I sacrificed myself during that spell, I got a lot of criticism and I tried things – such as playing Kieran Tierney at left centre-back and Andy Robertson at left-back – that had to be done.

At the end of the day, as I have said before, a lot of what I did and had to do was very experimental. I didn’t want to say I was going to be a sacrificial lamb.

Of course I would have loved to be taking the guys to the Euros but Stevie Clarke has come in and completed the job and it has been a fabulous job that he has done. I have always been a big admirer of Stevie.

Having waited so long to get back to this stage, Scotland must now ensure that this isn’t a one-off experience. We have to make the most of this opportunity now.

If you are a young kid tuning in to watch Scotland at a finals for this first time, you have to be inspired by what these players are doing and what they have achieved for their country.

The Scottish league has grown in recent years and you look at how well Rangers have done in the Europa League under Steven Gerrard and what that has done for the standing of our game.

We know we are still a smaller nation with a smaller league and we are going to be dwarfed by some of the other divisions given their financial resources and their reach.

But we can only focus on improving ourselves and we are in a good moment right now when you see the talents that we have playing for the national team.

There is more of a spread throughout the squad, you look at Declan Gallagher from Motherwell coming in and doing well, and players that are performing in the Premiership are competing with Premier League players for a jersey now.

We need to be competing at this level as often as possible and we need our players to be playing at the highest level possible.

Look at Andy Robertson. He is a world-class defender, if you look at all the left-backs in the world, he would probably be in the top ten and he could get into most teams in Europe.

You have Scott McTominay, who I spoke about the other week ahead of the Europa League final, doing so well for Manchester United and really coming on in recent years.

He was their best player in the defeat to Villarreal and that is the kind of level that we now have players operating at. What a player he is and is going to be.

John McGinn was a precocious talent at St Mirren, he was a star at Hibernian and now Aston Villa can’t leave him out of the team.

Steve Clarke can’t leave him out either and our boys up here have to take inspiration from that and really push themselves on to achieve greater things for club and country.

What an opportunity these players have over the next few weeks. This moment has been a long time coming and I wish them well and the best of luck.