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

- By Fraser Mackie AT HAM­P­DEN PARK

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.’


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