UEFA European Under-21 Championship Qualifiers
Ukraine U21s v Scotland U21s
Friday, 12 October, kick-off 5pm (UK time)
Obolon Arena, Kiev
Scotland’s Under-21s continue their UEFA Under-21 Championship qualification campaign with a trip to Ukraine.
Scot Gemmill’s side go into this match on the back of a 3-0 home victory over Andorra and a 2-1 win away in the Netherlands – the second defeat of the highly-rated Dutch in this section.
The Obolon Arena in Kiev provides the venue for tomorrow's match and the 5100-capacity stadium is the home of Obolon Brovar.
The novelty of pulling on the famous dark blue shirt has never worn off for right-back Liam Smith.
So the Ayr United man – a model of consistency throughout his time with the national youth team – is keen to extend his Scotland Under-21 stint beyond the final two qualification games against Ukraine and England.
Victory in Kiev would keep those hopes alive going into Tuesday’s head to head with the Auld Enemy at Tynecastle Park but the former Hearts man isn’t looking beyond the trip to the Obolon Arena.
Liam, you’re coming into this double-header on the back of a really strong start to the season for club and country. You obviously enjoyed the wins over Andorra and the Netherlands but you’re flying high in the Championship with Ayr United as well…
It’s been a great move and one I’m glad that I made. I knew going there in the summer that Ayr had a good group of players but I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how well it has gone so far. It’s early days and we have a long way to go but there’s no luck involved. Everyone is working really hard for each other and I’m enjoying playing in a team that is full of confidence and playing on the front foot. We’ve scored a lot of goals so it’s been a lot of fun.
Your manager, Ian McCall, has been very complimentary of you and your performances. How big a factor has he been in your consistency?
I’ve really enjoyed playing under the gaffer and I have to thank him for bringing me to Ayr in the first place. I enjoyed playing every week last season for St Mirren and it turned out to be a really successful season. Going back to Hearts in the summer, I knew I couldn’t afford to go back to not playing regularly and Ayr suit the way I like to try and play. Ian McCall encourages his full-backs to get involved and push forward.
You’re one of the survivors from the start of this qualification campaign. Some of the boys have enjoyed call-ups to the senior squad while others have fallen away. How do you look back on it?
I’m delighted for the boys who have pushed on to a place in Alex McLeish’s squad. I think we’re all proud of John Souttar, Oli McBurnie and Scott McKenna. Chris Cadden and Lewis Morgan have had a taste as well. It’s shown the rest of us that the pathway is there if you’re doing well. I think what must be heartening for Scotland is that when we have lost key players like that then others have stepped up to take their chance. I don’t feel as if we’re any weaker, despite being without some of the players I mentioned. It’s maybe a younger group but that’s to the credit of the staff and players who have managed that transition. The majority of players are playing week in, week out and those who aren’t are attached to massive clubs where they’re getting a great education.
What did you do well against the Netherlands that you’ll have to replicate in the next two games?
Scot Gemmill always has a game-plan and we have confidence in that every time we go out on the pitch so it’s just about sticking to that. We knew the Netherlands were going to be a good side – tactically and technically. We saw that last year in Paisley when we were able to find a way to win. We knew we’d have to concentrate for the full 90 minutes. We kept to our shape and frustrated them. When we got our opportunities we took them. We’re not just here to defend. We’re here to win the game. If we can do everything we did against the Netherlands again then we will give ourselves a chance to do something similar in Ukraine.
When you look at some of the big results achieved in the group, does that home defeat to Ukraine in Perth still rankle?
It does. I don’t think anyone should underestimate just how good a team Ukraine are and they have players playing for some big clubs but I don’t think we quite did ourselves justice that night. They were very good on the night and they’re just as good as the Netherlands so we’ll need to be at the top of our game to take something but we’re going in with confidence.
If these are to be your two final games for the Scotland Under-21 side, how do you reflect on your time with the squad?
You always remember the first time you are involved at this level and what a massive honour it is to pull on the strip and represent your country but I think that win in the Netherlands takes some beating. It’s easy to say when it’s the most recent memory in my head but I thought it was a real achievement for a Scotland team to go somewhere like that and deservedly win – on the back of our victory in Paisley last year. It summed up the spirit in the group because we all worked so hard for each other and you could see that in how happy we were after full-time. Having said that, it’ll count for nothing if we don’t do anything in Ukraine. I was first involved at Under-19 level under Ricky Sbragia so I’ve been a late developer compared to some of the boys and I have enjoyed every minute. You always have a good time with a great group of people. If this is it after the two games I would miss it, personally and in terms of the experiences I’ve been able to go through as a young player. It really has been a privilege.
Do you feel like an old man around the squad now?
When I hear boys say their year of birth starts with a two… yeah, I feel old. That sinks in when you’re one of the oldest players in training and have to go into a certain box exercise. I’m not a Fortnite man either, which maybe says a lot as well.
Scotland Under-21 Squad
Alan Campbell (Motherwell)
Billy Gilmour (Chelsea)
Chris Cadden (Motherwell)
David Bates (Hamburg SV)
Eamonn Brophy (Kilmarnock)
Elliot Watt (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
Fraser Hornby (Everton)
Glenn Middleton (Rangers)
Greg Taylor (Kilmarnock)
Lewis Morgan (Celtic)
Liam Smith (Ayr United)
Michael Johnston (Celtic)
Oliver Shaw (Hibernian)
Robby McCrorie (Rangers)
Ross Doohan (Celtic)*
Ross McCrorie (Rangers)
Ross Munro (Ross County)
Ryan Porteous (Hibernian)
Ryan Williamson (Dunfermline Athletic)
Stephen Mallan (Hibernian)
Tom McIntyre (Reading)
*on loan to Ayr United
Scotland U21s v England U21s Tickets
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