The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Get Shorty! Strachan is lifted by his leading man
It’s a wonderful double for the cheeky Bhoy as Leigh delivers in stunning style
LEIGH GRIFFITHS had a playful dig at Gordon Strachan last year by briefly changing his profile name online to ‘Shorty’. After yesterday’s astonishing drama it is incredible to think that the humorous little row began because Griffiths was considered unsuitable for set-pieces.
Defensive ones, of course. Such was the lack of height in Strachan’s team for the dismal double-header against Lithuania and Slovakia, the manager explained that Griffiths had been sacrificed for other strikers who could bail out Scotland in their own penalty box as well as pose a danger at the other end.
Perhaps that cheeky response from the ever-willing Griffiths was one of the many reasons why Strachan could call Scotland’s No 9 ‘strange but wonderful’ last night with the final words uttered in his otherwise dejected post-match media conference.
As for the wonderful, the Celtic forward scored two goals — in the 87th and 90th minutes — with dead-ball direct hits that Strachan is convinced have never been bettered in his lifetime of supporting, playing for and managing the national team.
Strachan said: ‘I can’t think of any better for Scotland. I really can’t. Going back all the years I’ve been watching Scotland I can remember great goals from the likes of Kenny Dalglish and Charlie Nicholas. But for actual strikes, I can’t. And then to do it again, against the tallest wall you could probably put up in the whole of European football today. He went over the top and then around the side. He’s a great character, a wonderful character. Strange….but wonderful.’
Griffiths spectacularly cracked the code at last in his 13th appearance. Since debuting against Luxembourg under Billy Stark’s caretaker guidance in November 2012 he has led the line in a shock win in Croatia, drifted out of favour and been the rescue act off the bench to no avail.
In March against Slovenia, the most prolific Scottish scorer of recent seasons hit the woodwork twice, injured his back and gave thanks to Chris Martin for sparing his blushes with a late winner that kept Scotland clinging onto Group F qualifying contention.
Here, the 26-year-old gave a dismal game a remarkable finale that it barely merited. He beat England goalkeeper Joe Hart with two free-kicks to bring Scotland back from the brink of defeat and to within sight of one of the greatest victories in history.
The outcome was no kind of reward for that genius, nor his graft throughout a game in which he was isolated for long spells. In these pages last week, Kenny Miller — a man well used to the feeling of thankless tasks in the dark-blue jersey — said he hoped Griffiths was only one, lucky breakthrough away from going on a scoring streak for Scotland. This was some start.
Yet last night and for many days ahead, no doubt, there was deep disappointment that those two classic goals added up to only one point. It is one likely to count for little in October unless Scotland can secure four victories from trips to Lithuania and Slovenia and home ties against Malta and Slovakia. Even then, Strachan and company must hope Gareth Southgate’s men don’t slip up against our rivals.
‘It’s so annoying for these players to do so much and have a result that could have been one of the best results ever,’ he said. ‘I’ve also seen Scotland’s best ever free kick — and then I see Scotland’s second best ever free kick right after it. And I have a noise after that like I’ve never heard before.
‘So these memories will be with me. And I’ll look at the players and think it’s unfair that they have to keep coming back and taking knocks like that. That’s what was so brilliant about Griff. To put that amount of work in, and then have a free-kick when he’s tired at the end of the game, I thought was great.
‘He had to execute it and did. It was phenomenal and says a lot about him. I think we had three people down with cramp as well. I’ve got to say, they were just fantastic. I mean, the power and strength and speed of England is phenomenal. I don’t think anybody realises how big, strong and quick these guys are. For us to keep going back after getting knocked down, I thought was brilliant.
‘That was probably one of them most emotional games ever in my managerial career. As a player, you get on with it but as a manager that was hard work. All sorts of emotions. It was like watching a heavyweight boxer fighting a middleweight.
‘These guys are giants, they play at a different level to most of us. Their strength and power and speed is hard to deal with — but they did it. Whatever anyone thinks about us as a group of players, I tell you one thing can’t question is their personality, their character, their commitment.’
Strachan refused to go anywhere near apportioning blame for the injury time lapse. Stuart Armstrong, on only his second cap, was a touch careless to allow substitute Raheem Sterling possession and the chance to produce a superb delivery for Harry Kane’s equaliser. ‘I didn’t even see it but I know fine well he’s done enough to be allowed a mistake,’ lamented Strachan.
‘He has been magnificent in two games for us. I don’t blame anybody.’
England boss Southgate joined Strachan in praising Griffiths for the power and precision in his freekicks, saying: ‘You’ve got to give great credit to Griffiths. Under great pressure, he delivers two outstanding technical finishes.’
Then Southgate’s captain and character came through.
‘Most importantly for me, we’re heading into injury time 2-1 down, but I don’t see anybody sink to their knees or hit the floor,’ noted Southgate. ‘I see body language that says we’re still in the game.
‘The end for me is a significant moment because the character of the team has to come through.’
ALL IS NOT LOST CLAIMS BERRA AS KANE AND CO ARE MADE TO GO THE DISTANCE Go to Pages 6-7