THIS TIME – that was the battlecry from the SFA’s marketing department to promote the World Cup Qualifying campaign, a bid to end two decades of waiting since our last major tournament appearance.
Well, “this time” is heading swiftly towards the same as every other time we’ve attempted to qualify for a major finals since 1998, in epic failure.
Friday nights whimpering 3-0 defeat at Wembley by arch-enemies England was the latest chapter in this horror novel, which sees Scotland sitting fifth in the group having picked up just four points from four games and their ropey defence conceding seven goals in the last three games.
The most galling thing about being humped by an average at best England side was the severe lack of effort from the Scots as soon as the hosts went two nil up. Instead of fighting to get back into the game, they simply threw in the towel and stopped trying. Losing is one thing but to simply not put in a single ounce of effort was shocking and the last half hour, after England wrapped up victory with their third goal, was horrendous to watch as the English passed the ball around whilst our players waited on the final whistle being blown.
When a Scotland side lacks passion against its greatest rivals, then it’s a massive indicator that we have reached a new low in our national game. It is arguable whether or not there have been worse Scotland sides than now, but there have been very few who’ve thrown in the towel like we have these last two games, and against average opposition.
Of course, it could so well have been so different had we taken one of the two galling opportunities we had to level the match after Daniel Sturridge headed England in front. Firstly, Grant Hanley had a free header almost bang-smack in the middle of the goal but headed over when it was far easier to score!
Then, just minutes into the second half, James Forrest carved out a golden opportunity for himself just inside the penalty box. However, having done all the hard work, he screwed his shot wide of Joe Hart’s goal with the whole of his left hand side to aim for.
In between times, Leigh Griffiths was gifted an opportunity to take advantage of poor England defending but, instead of rolling in Robert Snodgrass in a much better position, his greed got the better of him and his weak shot deflected safely into Hart’s hands.
At international level, you don’t get many chances like the ones we had and not taking them was criminal, and so it proved when England doubled their lead five minutes into the second half with another free header thanks to the now typical shambolic Scotland defending, this time Adam Lallana profiting having ghosted in unnoticed to make it 2-0 and, in the Scotland players minds, seal the win.
Cahill’s header was the icing on the cake as he headed home a Wayne Rooney corner with nobody on the post, despite the fact that EVERY Scotland player was back to “defend”.
Slovakia’s 4-0 win over Lithuania and Slovenia’s 1-0 win in Malta leaves us four points off a playoff place and casts further doubts over the future of manager Gordon Strachan.
I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t resign before our next qualifier against Slovenia at Hampden in March, and it would be the right thing for him to do as he’s lost all momentum he had and it’s evidently clear that the players are not playing for him.
However, his likely departure doesn’t mean that the changes of fortunes in our national team are going to improve overnight.
The next Scotland manager has to inherit a shambles of a defence that has no leadership, a lack of concentration and no understanding. Strachan made a slight change by dropping Russell Martin for Christophe Berra but that didn’t work out as he, along with the equally undependable Grant Hanley, toiled on the big occasion as England eased to victory.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much else below those three who you could say with conviction that could come in and do better job. John Souttar of Hearts is one possibility and it’d be a good idea for him to be included in the squad to gain some learning experience, rather than Gordon Greer wasting a slot.
Other than that, Scotland aren’t loaded with potential top centre backs, a position that used to be our most reliable for many years, and until we solve that problem we are not going anywhere for a number of years.
There are other players in the squad who should also make way for a younger generation to come through. Darren Fletcher has been a loyal servant over the years but it’s clear that he can no longer cope with the demands of International football and his performance levels dipped over the last couple of years. Scott Brown will likely go back into international retirement after the Wembley Woes whilst those in their thirties, i.e. Charlie Mulgrew, Shaun Maloney and Greer, should consider doing the same. These guys are unlikely they to be around for the Euro 2020 and World Cup 2022 qualifying campaigns get underway, therefore it’d be better if they moved on now and allow a younger generation to come through to get time to gel ahead of these campaigns.
Mathematically we can still qualify for Russia, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely for a squad who have consistently failed to deliver the major finals appearance that the Scotland fans desperately crave. The first four games have offered no encouragement to suggest that the tournament famine won’t enter a third decade given the lack of self-belief the players have and the dodgy defence. Some optimists will say “but four of our last six games are at Hampden” which may give us hope. However, Lithuania recently proved that no side are scared to come to the National Stadium anymore and support is dwindling in the Scotland side to create an intimidating atmosphere to inspire us to victory.
The next few weeks should be interesting to see if Gordon Strachan remains defiant in our World Cup hopes or decides it’s no longer worth the hassle for him to carry on. What is certain is that the players learn never ever to roll over and accept defeat again, especially when the Auld Enemy come to Hampden in June next year.