Scotland v Kazakhstan: Marc McNulty on his 'bittersweet' Astana debut

Marc McNulty
Marc McNulty was given his debut in Astana as Scotland were losing 3-0
Euro 2020 qualifying: Scotland v Kazakhstan
Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Tuesday, 19 November Kick-off: 19:45 GMT
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW/DAB/online; live text commentary on the BBC Sport website; watch highlights on BBC Scotland

The date is 21 March, 2019, the setting a sub-zero Astana Arena.

Outside, the warm glow of victory provides a rare extra layer of positivity for the long-suffering Kazakh football faithful, a body of people who had only witnessed their nation win once in 20 qualifiers. Until now.

Inside the away dressing room, the carnival atmosphere was swapped for the sombre silence of a hospital morgue. Scotland's opening Euro 2020 qualifier had resulted in a 3-0 disaster. Dead after one game? Certainly signs of a pulse at this fledgling stage were starting to weaken.

Then, amid the quiet, a frantic buzz permeated the numbness from the corner of the room. It was coming from the phone of Marc McNulty.

"My phone was going mad," he explains.

"I remember after the game going in and sitting down. It was a really quiet dressing room, everyone was gutted. But my family and friends were messaging me because it was my debut. It was bittersweet."

Early goals shocked us

From the darkness of Scotland's gloom came the glow of the then Hibernian forward's first appearance for his country, a moment he understandably describes as a monumentally proud moment for him and his family.

Already 3-0 down by the time he was given the nod by Alex McLeish, the 27-year-old from Edinburgh can still recall what was going through his mind as he emerged from the Scotland dugout for the biggest nine minutes of his career.

"At the time I just thought 'You are getting your debut. Be positive, run about'," he told BBC Scotland.

"There's not much you can do when you are three goals down away from home, but you have to try and be positive.

"Everyone knew it would be difficult but the boys were taken by surprise. The way the goals went in early doors we got a shock. It was difficult to get back in.

"Looking at it from the bench you always think how you are going to impact the game if I come on, but by that time it was 3-0. I was up against it."

Kazakhstan were 2-0 up inside the first 10 minutes against Scotland
Kazakhstan were 2-0 up inside the first 10 minutes against Scotland

While new to the Scotland fold at the time, McNulty admits there was little sign of the fate about to befall McLeish's men in Eastern Europe. After all, a Euro semi-final play-off had been squirrelled away a few months earlier, with the Kazakhs not without their own troubles to seek.

Regardless, the Sunderland striker insists meticulous - and rather peculiar - preparations were not to blame.

"I had met a few of the boys for the first time. We had our own chartered plane and when we got there we all stayed on UK time. I remember that being a bit of a talking point at the time.

"We were eating our meals at funny times, but to the locals we were eating our dinner at 4am. It just meant we didn't change our sleeping patterns.

"It's easy looking at the result to blame something like that but if it was a positive result it would have been a genius idea."

A day I'll never forget

Tuesday's meeting at Hampden with Kazakhstan will bring memories flooding back for the Scotland support, visions that will no doubt haunt those who were in the stands under the roof at the Astana Arena eight months ago.

McNulty is hopeful that he will soon add to the two caps earned on that trip - including the following match away to San Marino - but says Scotland's Kazakh catastrophe still remains a personal highlight.

"It was one of the biggest moments of my career and also for my family as well. It was brilliant," he said.

"I didn't expect to be called up so to pull on that strip was amazing. Obviously the circumstances weren't the best but it was a day I'll never forget.

"At the end of the game one of their players asked to swap jerseys with me, but I apologised and said I wanted to keep my first strip. My dad has it in the house so it's a good keepsake for him."

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