The first knock out round drew Scotland against Portugal who had some extremely talented, world class players to pick from. However, despite being ranked 2nd in the FIFA World Rankings, they had underperformed in their group matches and could only finish second to Belgium. They probably breathed a sigh of relief when they were drawn against Scotland who before the tournament were not expected to go very far.
Portuguese players were being asked whether they thought they stood a chance against the surprise team of the competition and generally, they would state that they would start to play the football that people expect and they would beat Scotland easily. All this did was stoke up the Scottish players even more and they resolved to remove Portugal for being so dismissive.
Right from the kick off, Portugal attacked the Scotland goal and after thirteen minutes scored a cracking goal which the keeper couldn’t get to. They were also a physical side and targeted Bradley whenever he had the ball. Bradley was reminded of the ‘friendly’ they played together earlier this month when they kicked lumps out of him and wasn’t looking forward to a repeat of that, thank you. He had learned a lot from that experience, including how to fall over and win free kicks which was something the Portuguese were masters at.
When the second half was nearing the end, with Scotland’s dream seemingly fading away as the clock ticked, Bradley did indeed fall over easily when one of the Portuguese defenders brushed past him. He asked the captain if he could take the free kick as he had an idea that might just come off. Reluctantly, Dougie Brown agreed and let him place the ball just outside the penalty area. The crowd silenced, he began his run up. He hit the ball perfectly and watched it arc over the wall and into the top corner before the keeper had a chance to move. 1-1!!
Scotland’s faithful army of supporters resumed their singing and chanting as their opponents started arguing with themselves over how they let Scotland back into the game. When the final whistle blew with the score remaining level, Portugal were almost punching each other. Scotland regrouped at the touchline to get more instructions from Jimmy Anderson and take on fluids to get them through the next thirty minutes.
They came back for the first period of extra time raring to get at the Portuguese and just two minutes after the restart, Bradley launched the ball into the box for the centre forward to nod powerfully into the net. Ten minutes later and the centre forward returned the favour with a knock down from a corner which Bradley slotted away through a crowd of defenders. 3-1 and Scotland were cruising! Portugal were reduced to ten men when Alberto, their midfield maestro was sent off for a badly timed tackle. They were now imploding and Scotland punished them further with three minutes left when Bradley fed the ball through for Dougie Brown to hammer one home and complete the rout.
Not many people expected Scotland to win, let alone 4-1 against one of the favourites. The press and TV were full of it; British newspapers were largely ignoring England’s exploits as they struggled through, everybody was talking about ‘plucky’ Scotland and how they could well win the competition after their displays so far. There were questions raised about whether Hearts could hold on to Bradley Gardner who had become the star performer so far. Brian realised what was happening and things were going to get very hectic after this. He would be surprised if the big clubs didn’t come in for him and it was time to engage a proper agent and someone to look after his money. If was a frightening thought, but Bradley could be a millionaire in a few months, and he still wasn’t 18.
England’s participation in the tournament ended in the first knock out round when they were narrowly beaten by Germany 2-1 which led to much criticism in the English press who by now were flying the flag for Scotland anyway. Whilst they went home early with their tails between their legs, Scotland waited to see who they would meet in the quarter finals with eager anticipation. They were likely to meet either Spain or Poland and the whole team gathered in the hotel lounge to watch the game, pick up some tips on their weaknesses ready to face them in the quarters in five days’ time.
It was noticeable that Scotland teams in the past would be consuming great numbers of beers while watching a game, but this time there wasn’t an alcoholic drink in sight. Apart from the fact that the manager had banned booze, this bunch of players weren’t interested in it, preferring to keep their bodies in the best shape possible. Nobody wanted to go home just yet, although they were all fighting tiredness after such a long season.
Fatigue was telling on the other teams as well which meant that some of the games were instantly forgettable. Spain were the reigning champions and although their team was getting old and showing signs of wear, they were still going to be a formidable opponent if they beat Poland. As it turned out, Spain won 2-0 to progress into the last eight for a showdown with Scotland. This delighted the Scotland team who were, by now, scared of nobody. They couldn’t wait to meet them.
Brian and Sam were enjoying the tournament immensely, having managed to see a game every day so far, thanks to Bradley. It had meant covering hundreds of miles to shuttle between the venues, changing hotels every other night which had left them as tired as the players. Brian had been approached a few times by club representatives asking who Bradley’s agent was and who they should talk to about bringing Bradley into their team. They didn’t always reveal who they were representing as this could be seen as tapping up and it was considered bad form to make approaches while the player concerned had other more important things to concentrate on.
He had guessed three of the clubs involved; Paris St Germain, Tottenham and Lazio who were all hoping to get Bradley on the cheap. £25million for a potentially world class player was seen as a good investment. To Hearts, it would simply mean selling their best player and solving all their debt problems. On the basis of Bradley’s performances thus far, Hearts had sold themselves cheap and they were regretting not putting a much larger release clause in his contract.
Brian and Sam weren’t going to tell Bradley anything until after the competition had finished; that was the manager’s job in any case and he would be perfectly aware of events off the pitch.
The day of the quarter final match against Spain came around quicker than it seemed, but the Scotland team were well prepared for it. They had been lucky with injuries and suspensions, although most of the team came off with bruises and knocks after the Portugal game. The press continued to marvel at Scotland’s exploits but even they thought Spain would be a step too far with all their experience. Scotland’s team’s combined value was around £40million including Bradley; Spain’s value was nearer £300million, even though they were considered to be over their peak. The bookies reflected this in their odds; Spain were 1/3 and Scotland, who they thought could still deliver another upset, were quoted at 9/4 against. Brian couldn’t resist having a bet at those odds; he had done well so far backing Scotland.
Despite their best efforts, Spain were just too good for Scotland that evening running out 2-1 winners to shatter their dreams of making it to the semi-finals where they would have met France who had defeated Germany the previous day.
The Spanish players made a point of congratulating every Scotland player and told them they were the toughest team they had played against for ages. Shirts were swapped and Bradley was delighted to change shirts with his opposite number, Alvarez who played for Valencia and knew his friend Jose well. They chatted for a few minutes about Jose and how he would help Bradley if he ever wanted to move to Valencia.
Dougie gathered the team together to walk over to their adoring fans and thank them for their huge support with tears in their eyes. They had done Scotland proud and were sorry it was all over, but they had gained many admirers and friends along the way. It was now time to go home and get some rest ready for the new season, basking in the glory of their wonderful summer in France.
It had been some journey, but this team had a lot further to go yet.