THE European Championships are finally here and I’m as excited as any other Scotland fan. It’s been so long since the men’s team were last at a major finals and it’s been brilliant to see the excitement growing around the country the closer it has got.

Turkey and Italy get the ball rolling with the opening game this evening and then it’s only three days until Steve Clarke and the guys get Scotland’s campaign up and running on Monday. I’m really fortunate in that I’ll be at Hampden for the Czech Republic game as part of my media duties but I’m just thrilled as a supporter that we’re back on the big stage again. It’s just not been the same over the last 23 years without Scotland at these tournaments.

When you grow up you have the dream of one day playing for your country and I was lucky enough to do that, captain my country and then lead us into a World Cup as manager.

But nothing beats being a fan. I want Scotland to win at everything as I’m so passionate about my country. And having waited so long it has only whetted the appetite even more.

My first memory of watching Scotland was at the 1978 World Cup and it’s just something that sticks with you throughout your life.

Everyone gets captivated by the major finals and you can really feel the hype building as the whole nation looks forward to seeing how we get on this time after a 23-year absence.

I feel as a squad we’re going into the tournament in a strong place. Yes, we’ve lost Ryan Jack and Kenny McLean to injury and there was the minor hiccup with John Fleck’s Covid case last week but, barring a repeat of that, I think the preparations have been ideal.

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We were seconds away from defeating the Netherlands and then followed that up with a win over Luxembourg, giving most of the squad a run-out at some point over the two matches.

Confidence is really high now but it’s been a long process to get to this point. Steve has taken his time to impart his knowledge and philosophy to the players and they have gradually incorporated that into their play. So we’re in a good position.

But this is where it counts now. This is where the pressure starts to mount and the decision-making has to be spot on, both from Steve and his staff but also from the players on the pitch. Ultimately this is what it will all come down to.

Steve has selected a young squad with only the three goalkeepers and Declan Gallagher in their thirties. And obviously none have ever played before at a major tournament.

But there is still plenty of experience throughout the group. We’ve got players at Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Aston Villa in the Premier League and guys who are starring in the Scottish Premiership every week.

It’s the most competitive squad that we’ve had looking back over the last few years. There’s up-and-coming talent there in Billy Gilmour, Nathan Patterson and David Turnbull too. We might not have a superstar like a Gareth Bale or a Harry Kane but I truly believe it’s a really strong squad and one that we can have a lot of confidence in.

Getting out of the group and into the last 16 should be the target and I don’t think that’s unrealistic. The way the format of the tournament is set up with four of the six third-placed teams getting through then even just three points could well be enough to qualify.

You could achieve that with three draws but more realistically I think we should be targeting the Czech game as one that is really winnable. If we get that opening victory in the bag it would remove some of the pressure going into the England and Croatia games later in the group.

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I hope we play in a way that excites the country. Steve is a pragmatic manager and has a philosophy that has worked well to get us to this point. But equally you need to get the whole nation onside and results will do that. Steve has shown he has the credentials as a manager to solve problems to get us over the line.

You can’t also underplay the importance of having home advantage in two of those matches. It is so rare that you get that at a major tournament and that has to go in Scotland’s favour.

Naturally you’d rather it was a full house at Hampden but in the circumstances 12,000 is still a decent crowd and you know they will be up for it and making enough noise to spur the players on.

Most of them will have been playing behind closed doors for the entirety of the season so having any sort of atmosphere ought to put an additional spring in their steps.

There’s been some debate over the past week over whether Gilmour deserves to start. I suspect Steve will keep him in reserve but if it were me I’d play him from the beginning.

I think he’s a terrific talent and I hope he gets his chance as he’s a really exciting young player. And I think he’s capable of holding his own.

It would be brilliant to see him on this stage against the cream of Europe. I know he wouldn’t let us down.