The Scottish Mail on Sunday

Same old hard pluck story and usual lack of be­lief

- By Gary Keown AT HAM­P­DEN PARK

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

 ??  ?? HARD TO STOM­ACH: a crouch­ing Tier­ney tries to take it all in at the end
HARD TO STOM­ACH: a crouch­ing Tier­ney tries to take it all in at the end
 ??  ??

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