AS he gabbed away with a gaggle of Scottish newspaper reporters ahead of the UEFA Conference League play-off double header against Hibernian on a Zoom call last month, Aston Villa captain John McGinn allowed his thoughts to drift ahead.

Scotland is never far from the mind of the man mountain who has become an icon to the Tartan Army with his goalscoring heroics in the past four years.

Especially not when the national team is enjoying a sensational run of form and is on the brink of qualification for the Euro 2024 finals in Germany next summer.

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But it was not just the Group A game against Cyprus in Larnaca which “Meatball” was licking his lips at the prospect of being involved in. The 150th Anniversary Heritage Match against England at Hampden was very much on his radar as well. “We have got a friendly that won’t be a friendly,” he said.

The meeting with Gareth Southgate’s men on Tuesday night is, on paper at least, of far less importance than the encounter with Temuri Ketsbaia’s charges was last night.

But it is, of course, far from meaningless. There is national pride at stake. Everyone who dons a dark blue jersey next week will be hell bent on prevailing. No 50-50 challenge will be shirked during what promise to be 90 fiercely-contested minutes.

A first victory over the Auld Enemy in 24 years in front of a sell-out 50,000-strong crowd will have positive and far-reaching repercussions. 

Beating their oldest and greatest rivals will give Andy Robertson and his team mates - who have defeated both Denmark and Spain, opponents who are in the top 20 in the FIFA World Rankings, in their past two qualifying campaigns – further belief that they are good enough to compete with and conquer the best sides on the planet.

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That will be invaluable if they do make it through to Euro 2024 as the likelihood is high they will, as we saw when they were drawn in a section with Croatia, the Czech Republic and England at Euro 2020, come against some formidable foes.

Getting the better of Harry Kane and Co in midweek, too, will fuel the feelgood factor which has been steadily growing among their supporters since the 3-0 win over Cyprus in Glasgow back in March even further.

Scotland fans truly are a 12th man for their side. Having thousands of their euphoric followers roaring them on from the stands in the wake of a wildly-celebrated victory over England will only help in the forthcoming fixtures against Spain, Georgia and Norway and then beyond.

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But could sending “them” home to think again and then going on to reach another major tournament also have a much wider impact? Could such achievements lead to an upsurge in patriotic fervour among the population? Could they even result in a groundswell of support for independence ahead of the general election which is set to be held in 2024 or 2025? It is not at all fanciful to suggest that they could.

Sporting exploits have certainly had a direct bearing on far weightier issues in the past. “There was a suggestion at the time of the Scottish devolution referendum in the March of 1979 that Scotland’s failure at the World Cup in Argentina nine months earlier had played a big part in the result,” said Dr Neil McGarvey, a senior teaching fellow in politics at the University of Strathclyde.

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“National confidence took such a dent as a result of the debacle in South America. I am not totally sceptical of its impact. Politicians will all tell you that events do matter.”

Harold Wilson is widely attributed with once remarking, ‘A week is a long time in politics’. The former Labour Prime Minister found that a month was an eternity after he called a general election back in the May of 1970.

Most opinion polls pointed towards a comfortable victory for the government in the build-up. Some even put them up to 12.4 per cent ahead of the Conservatives.

But the United Kingdom went to the polls in June just four days after defending champions England had lost 3-2 to West Germany after extra time in the World Cup quarter-final in Mexico. Edward Heath surprisingly swept in to Downing Street with a majority of 31.

That was the first general election at which a Scottish National Party candidate won a seat at Westminster. Donald Stewart captured the Western Isles and became their only MP. They enjoyed a period of sustained growth thereafter.

It is fair to say their cause has suffered more setbacks than the deposit return scheme of late due to a series of high-profile controversies. A Redfield and Wilton Strategies independence referendum voting intention poll last month found that just 45 per cent of respondents would vote “yes”. No further forward than 2014 then.

The next general election has to be held before January 28, 2025. Will Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, if he is still in office, leave it late in the hope that he can somehow drum up some support for his ailing administration? There is every chance.

If, as some political commentators are speculating, he calls it in May just as Steve Clarke and his boys are preparing to head off to Germany and Scotland is being gripped by Euro 2024 fever, it could prove to be a massive own goal.

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