The Scottish Mail on Sunday

EC­STASY GIVES WAY TO AGONY

Grif­fiths’ late free-kick brace sparks joy for Scot­land but is un­done by Kane equaliser

- By Fraser Mackie AT HAM­P­DEN PARK

SCOT­LAND crammed de­light­ful then, ul­ti­mately, dev­as­tat­ing drama into the wildest six min­utes of World Cup qual­i­fy­ing chaos of this or any of the na­tion’s tor­tu­ous cam­paigns, as Eng­land snatched a draw in stop­page time.

You thought the cruel fash­ion in which Poland ended Scot­land’s shot at a Euro 2016 place in stop­page time on the penul­ti­mate night of ac­tion in the pre­vi­ous tour­na­ment was as painful as it gets for this foot­ball na­tion? Think again.

Here, Harry Kane net­ting three min­utes beyond nor­mal time was the sick­en­ing smack in the face for Leigh Grif­fiths send­ing Ham­p­den Park into a frenzy with two stun­ning free-kick goals in the 87th and 90th min­utes.

Those — his first for the coun­try — can­celled out Alex OxladeCham­ber­lain’s strike and put Scot­land on the brink of sav­ing Rus­sia 2018 hopes. Of cop­ping one of the great­est re­sults in the his­tory of the fix­ture. Of giv­ing Gor­don Strachan his best day as a man­ager.

Then Eng­land skip­per Kane, who had been de­nied with sev­eral op­por­tu­ni­ties through­out a poor con­test, pounced to round off the sea­son of his ca­reer by be­com­ing Eng­land’s saviour at the death. The flat-track bul­lies of in­ter­na­tional foot­ball re­main un­beaten in qual­i­fy­ing com­pe­ti­tion since 2009. That is now 35 games.

Yet the boys from Gareth South­gate’s boot camp were not so armed and dan­ger­ous for the bulk of a slow-paced game against a rear­guard ac­tion that saw Scot­land re­treat into trenches.

Cen­tre-halves in the bot­tom half of the English Cham­pi­onship last sea­son, Christophe Berra and Char­lie Mul­grew were joined by Kieran Tier­ney in try­ing to snuff out Kane and com­pany.

And with Ikechi Anya and An­drew Robert­son camping in when­ever Eng­land were in pos­ses­sion, Strachan was true to the ‘Must not lose’ mantra with which he kicked off in­ter­na­tional week.

Within two min­utes, Scott Brown tried. Yet was re­minded con­ti­nen­tal ref­er­ees are not as kind to him as, say, Bobby Mad­den in the Scot­tish Cup fi­nal. A reck­less foul on Dele Alli landed him in yel­low peril within two min­utes.

He was might­ily for­tu­nate not to see a sec­ond yel­low for clat­ter­ing into Alli on the touch­line mid­way through the sec­ond half and even mild-man­nered South­gate was drawn into the the­atrics of ask­ing the ref­eree for the ul­ti­mate sanc­tion.

The ag­gres­sion and blis­ter­ing pace with which Scot­land be­gan — a Grif­fiths snap­shot fired straight at Joe Hart and a se­ries of cor­ners cre­ated dis­com­fort — soon withered and Eng­land seized con­trol.

Kane was the re­cip­i­ent of club as­sis­tance as Eng­land eeked out their first chance 17 min­utes in. Eric Dier’s chip found Kane turn­ing Tier­ney. The wild and way­ward at­tempt was most un­like the back-to-back top English Pre­mier League scorer.

Adam Lal­lana was a ghost­ing pres­ence with his runs and one un­tracked burst al­lowed him to flick across goal. Kane could not ad­just his foot­ing in time and the ball bounded out of play.

Robert Sn­od­grass could not help Scot­land creep up the park, and demon­strated his frus­tra­tion by ges­tic­u­lat­ing his dis­plea­sure at Anya then Strachan.

The West Ham for­ward did not look at all sharp and when yet another move broke down at his feet, it trig­gered 28th-minute chaos for his col­leagues. Craig Gor­don rushed out of his penalty box to head clear, but not clear enough. Kane re­turned fire with a loop­ing shot that Tier­ney was alert to nod off the line.

James Mor­ri­son slipped when try­ing to hoof the ball fur­ther away, and Gor­don re­cov­ered to boot clear Mar­cus Rash­ford’s fol­low-up shot.

If Brown had tried to leave a mark on 6ft 2in Alli with his early an­tics then it failed. Alli glided for­ward af­ter Anya was robbed, slid in Rash­ford, and Tier­ney — once again — was in the right spot to smother an Eng­land at­tack. Be­ing asked to play an un­fa­mil­iar role once again for Scot­land — he was right-back against Slove­nia — is some learn­ing curve for the 19-year-old, who will have cre­ated more glow­ing scout re­ports from elite com­pany.

Lal­lana ruf­fled the side net­ting and Jake Liver­more’s fierce 22-yard hit was punched over by Gor­don as Eng­land fin­ished the half well on top but failed to suit­ably pun­ish the hosts for their own in­abil­ity to keep pos­ses­sion when break­ing.

Mor­ri­son was re­placed by James McArthur at the break, and the Crys­tal Palace man was one of the bod­ies in dark blue to crowd out the fol­low-ups af­ter a Liver­more shot de­flected off the post.

Then Scot­land’s best spell — lead­ing up to the hour — pre­sented chances. Grif­fiths failed to tease a soft spot-kick out of the Ital­ian ref­eree but he saw much more of the ball in the sec­ond half. When he teed up Robert­son 20 yards out, the Hull full-back’s com­po­sure and lethal left foot de­serted him.

Ryan Fraser’s de­but on 65 min­utes, re­plac­ing Sn­od­grass, was in­tended to be the in­jec­tion of width and pace needed to re­ally trou­ble Eng­land on the counter. How­ever, it was the Eng­land switch a minute ear­lier that made the killer im­pact as Oxlade-Cham­ber­lain was in­tro­duced.

Gor­don pushed away Kane’s header with typ­i­cally strong re­ac­tions. How­ever, he was forced into con­ced­ing a throw-in when un­der pres­sure from Alli with the ball at his feet and deal­ing with a Tier­ney pass­back. That led to Eng­land work­ing their way to goal.

Kyle Walker and Dier played Oxlade-Cham­ber­lain in from the right. With a clever twist and turn, he dragged him­self clear of Brown and set his sights on craft­ing a shoot­ing chance. Nei­ther Arm­strong nor Tier­ney could get tight and, when they col­lided, the Arse­nal wide man went for glory. With Gor­don down too early, all the Celtic keeper could do was force the ball into the roof of the net rather than over his cross­bar.

Scot­land play­ers were treated for cramp all over the pitch, but one man was not for buck­ling. Be­fore his 12th and fruit­less at­tempt to break his Scot­land scor­ing duck in March, Grif­fiths lamented he might have been try­ing too hard to earn a first in­ter­na­tional goal.

No one will blame him for this tiny char­ac­ter ‘fault’ now. All hope was about to ex­tin­guish on the cam­paign af­ter six, sorry matches. The Eng­land fans were goad­ing Strachan about an im­mi­nent date with de­par­ture from of­fice. How­ever, the Royal Marines who re­cently hosted the Eng­land squad for a boot camp ex­er­cise, clearly did not pass on any in­struc­tions to Hart on how to con­struct a de­cent de­fen­sive wall.

A kung-fu kick from Gary Cahill

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