The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Same old hard pluck story and usual lack of belief
THE Tartan Army cannot even bring themselves to get angry about it any more. Honestly. When the dust had settled and we had resigned ourselves to insisting for another few months that we can somehow win all our remaining matches and make it to Russia, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, came the sight of rival supporters applauding each other out of the stadium.
It was a nice touch. Much nicer than singing songs about Jimmy Savile, as the home support had done, rather unfortunately, earlier in the game.
However, it simply hints at the defeatist mentality that hangs over our game like a toxic cloud. The acceptance of it all. This ‘s***e to be Scottish’ mentality. The lack of swagger. Of belief.
How on earth did we throw that away last night? How do you score two goals out of the blue in the last four minutes of normal time to get yourselves in a winning position you desperately need and barely deserve — re-energising a qualifying campaign that has been underwhelming to say the least — and still find a way to make a Horlicks of it?
Two moments of magic from Leigh Griffiths, a little Trojan of a player who had to sit on the sidelines until this campaign reached crisis point, broke his back the last time he wore the dark blue jersey and got back up again to bear the weight of a country’s hopes on his shoulders.
All spoiled. All rendered pretty much pointless by the kind of defending and lack of organisation that you would expect at pub league level. God, how you feel sorry for him.
Gordon Strachan threw his water bottle on the ground in frustration and spat out expletives no doubt repeated across the nation when Harry Kane scored that heartbreaking leveller at the death.
As much as this disappointing campaign, back on life support, has been his responsibility, there is little he can do about what happened at the end.
Would the Aberdeen team he played in have squandered a position like that so meekly? Would Alex McLeish and Willie Miller have left Kane unmarked in the box two minutes into stoppage-time. Would Jim Leighton, nae teeth and a smashed-up face, have stood and watched them?
Scotland do have players of talent. We do have players capable of making an impression at this level. We know our limitations and the players do work on them.
But what do we do about the lack of mental strength to close games out, drag yourself over the line? Somehow. Some way. However it has to be done.
Maybe it’s just natural justice. We dragged a late draw out of the fire at home to Lithuania and needed an even later goal against Slovenia last time out to stay in the hunt. It doesn’t make what happened last night any easier to take.
No one would suggest Scotland played well. The first half, outwith an opening ten minutes when we pressed England with the force you would use to put sardines into a can, was pretty dreadful. Yet when Griffiths bent in the second of those free-kicks, it was all immaterial. We were in front. Right back in the mix against all odds and logic. When you get that kind of break, you have to make it pay at this kind of level. Sure, it was dramatic. Sure, it was the kind of finish that makes football so bewitching. Yet, it was hard to listen to that England support, just before the outbreak of bonhomie, chant about ‘Scotland staying home’ and us being a ‘s*** San Marino’. They are not great shakes themselves. If we had just kept our focus and our cool, their hugely overrated multi-millionaires would have been deep in the mire. Going with three at the back was a shock last night but hardly the root of the problem. It was something worth trying and maybe even sticking with as an option.
For most of the game, it worked. It also provided another way of getting two of our best players, Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson, on the field.
The plan to get in England’s faces from the first whistle was perfectly understandable as well. Within five seconds, Griffiths had put in a block on Eric Dier and forced Gary Cahill to put the ball out of play.
Less than two-and-a-half minutes in, Scott Brown was in the book, crunching into Dele Alli in the centre of the field. Clearly, Italian referee Paolo Tagliavento did not read the edict issued before the Scottish Cup final that Brown is now permitted to do whatever he likes on the field.
Griffiths even got a shot off six minutes in, forcing a save from Joe Hart. Tierney was getting a wee bit of joy up the flank. We even won a handful of corners.
Unfortunately, when England came to terms with Scotland’s surprise system and started getting Jake Livermore on the ball in the centre of the field, all the early pressing was beginning to take its toll and frailties in the game plan became exposed.
Griffiths needed support. Too often, the ball was lumped long, possession was gifted away and we waited for a cavalry charge upfield that never came.
Ikechi Anya’s first touch often proved his undoing and Robert Snodgrass’ lack of regular first-team action at West Ham came back to bite him.
We weren’t doing too badly when Craig Gordon failed to deal with a ball bouncing back from Tierney and conceded the throw-in that led to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cheaply conceded opener.
We were doing bloody well when Kane got in behind our defence and capitalised on hesitancy from pretty much everyone.
As it is, we’re just back where we always are. Chewing over hard luck stories. Same old Scotland.
6 It was a crazy six minutes as Griffiths struck twice then Kane pounced in the third minute of stoppage time