Twice battered by glittering Belgium in a half-empty Hampden, Scotland seemed like a lost cause for an increasingly apathetic nation.
But Roberto Martínez, the orchestrator of Alex McLeish and Steve Clarke’s agony, disagreed.
The manager of FIFA’s top-ranked country was impressed by the transformation in Scotland’s fortunes since winning 4-0 in Glasgow in September 2018 and 2019.
But he is not surprised.
For the former Motherwell midfielder, Martinez saw potential amidst the pain his team of superstars inflicted on their hapless hosts.
And he has been delighted to follow Scotland’s progress ever since, reaching Euro 2020 and on the verge of the 2022 World Cup final in Qatar.
The former Wigan and Everton boss also has a vested interest as his wife Beth is Scottish.
And his training partner with Belgium for three and a half years was Shaun Maloney before he left to become the new Hibs manager.
Watching Scotland on TV with Maloney in international camps was a painful experience for too long for Martinez.
But the Spaniard always believed that with talents like Scott McTominay, John Souttar, John McGinn, Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson all playing against his side, much better times were ahead.
All the canny operator Clarke needed, Martinez said, was hours of field training to click.
He said: “As a coach in international football, you always need training time and hours on the training ground.
“You can see that with a national team, training the players takes more time than at club level.
“It is difficult to change the mentality immediately, that is totally normal. So I knew that Steve Clarke would need that quality time for the team to progress.
“When we played Scotland last time, looking through the team, I felt like they were preparing to have a strong group in
“There are four or five players who not only play in the Premier League but also play very important roles for their clubs.
“For example, captain Andy Robertson has won the Champions League.
“Kieran Tierney plays a very important role in an Arsenal that is currently fighting to get into the Champions League places.”
Martinez reckons that the way they qualified for Euro 2020, sneaking past Israel and then Serbia on the shots, created a
toughness and spirit that laid the foundation for the most recent stellar run of results.
Those play-off successes after extra time and penalties told the story of a team increasingly confident in each other and mentally resolute. Losses to the Czech Republic and Croatia on both sides of a draw at Wembley saw Scotland miss out of the group stage at the final tournament.
But an impressive fall has shown that Clarke’s reign is still on an upward curve.
Moving up to second in World Cup qualifying and beating previously unbeaten group winners Denmark, Scotland won six competitive games in a row for the first time since 1930.
Martinez said: “I could see that the way they qualified for the European Championship was of the highest level.
“It is not easy to deal with a playoff where the expectation is so great and the working time was short for Steve Clarke.
“There is no better reflection of your work in the Scottish camp than winning the way they did.
“That told me this was a team that was going from strength to strength.
“And it was clear from the celebrations how much it meant to these players to play for their national team and achieve something.
“I think it’s a perfect foundation for the future, I think they got a lot of strength out of it.
“I felt it was a shame that Hampden Park couldn’t be at full capacity for the European Championship.
“I am totally convinced that he would have been a great help to the Scotland team.
“But I felt the Scotland team was still full of potential with new players who could reach a high level.
“Scotland’s midfield is very strong. So it’s about getting the right players in the right positions to develop and play the kind of football that can take Scotland to a World Cup and then progress.”
Clarke’s heroes can join Belgium at Qatar 2022 if they beat Ukraine under new manager Oleksandr Petrakov in Hampden and then travel to beat the winner of the other semi-final between Wales and Austria.
Martinez is convinced that the Tartan Army has nothing to fear from these tests.
In fact, he thinks the opposition will not like his draw against the highly progressive Scots.
He said: “With teams like Portugal and Italy in these play-offs, it shows you the difficulty of qualifying for this particular World Cup.
“Ukraine is a difficult game where there is a new coach, so you have an uncertain level of performance to assess.
“As we all know, it’s Wales or Austria if Scotland progresses, and I feel like there are a lot of things that could affect the outcome of that.
“But Scotland have shown that they have as good a chance as anyone to qualify for the World Cup.”
When Scotland start against Ukraine, Martinez will prepare his Red Devils team for a friendly trip to face the Republic of Ireland two days later.
Family ties may well dictate that, despite losing Maloney in his first management job, he keeps his interest in Scottish dramas high.
Asked if Maloney could cheer for Scotland while working in the Belgium camp, Martinez replied: “We made sure he was!
“Obviously my wife is Scottish, so we are always interested.
“Shaun always had time to do his job, and then to see Scotland play live.”