THERE are many words that could sum up the drama that unfolded at Hampden on Saturday.
At the start, there was excitement as kick off approached in this Auld Enemy World Cup qualifier. Frustration at an inept first half performance where Scotland were fortunate to still be level. Hope when Leigh Griffiths’ first free kick hit the net that we could claw something from the game. Belief after his second set piece stunner that we could actually win this game and claim a historic victory. Despair as Harry Kane profited from invisible defending to snatch a point for the visitors.
To summarise, it was a typical day in the life of a Scotland fan!
As the sun shone on the National Stadium, there was hope that Scotland could build on their 1-0 win over Slovenia by toppling the group leaders and arch rivals England and keep their slim World Cup playoff hopes alive.
It was never going to be easy against an England side who, despite the fact this is not as talented a team as in previous years, hadn’t lost a qualifying match since 2009, and even that was a game after they had qualified for the 2010 World Cup.
When the team news came through, the jaw dropping selection was that Ikechi Anya was starting ahead of James Forrest and Ryan Fraser. Most presumed, myself included, that the pacey winger would play on one flank and that Snodgrass would fill the other. However, he was deployed as a right back with Kieran Tierney playing left back and Andy Robertson playing left midfield, although when England had the ball it looked like a back five with Robertson dropping back and Tierney tucking in closer to centre backs Charlie Mulgrew and Christophe Berra.
Whatever the tactics, they didn’t work in the first half as England dominated possession against an anonymous Scottish midfield. The theme of the first half seemed to be England have the ball, they work it into the 18 years box, Scotland player wins it, launches it aimlessly to either flank with no blue jersey in sight, repeat!
Despite their possession, the visitors didn’t really create many chances, although there was one hairy moment when Craig Gordon’s headed clearance fell to Kane. He lobbed the keeper, only for Tierney to get back on the line to clear but an error by Robertson led to a Marcus Rashford shot, which Gordon turned round the post with his left leg.
Although England didn’t have enough to show for their possession, we still went in at half time feeling that we were lucky to still being in the game given how anonymous our midfield was and the lack of supply to Leigh Griffiths. Something had to change or it was a matter of time before the visitors scored.
The introduction of James McArthur for Morrison helped and we did begin more brightly with a couple of efforts from Robertson and Griffiths, which went high, wide and handsome, and the team looked more up for it, which in turn gave more encouragement to the Scotland supporters.
However, we did ride our luck as well when a deflected Livermore shot hit the outside of the post before the breakthrough was made on 70 minutes – and it started with Scotland typically shooting themselves in the foot. Following our own corner, an England breakaway led to Tierney passing the ball back to Gordon, who allowed the pass to get beyond him and forcing him to put the ball out for a throw in. From there, substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain wandered into the area and his effort went straight through the Celtic keeper and into the middle of the goal. For the normally reliable Gordon, this was one he’ll know he should’ve dealt with comfortably.
It was a body blow to the team, who looked down on their feet at that point and got the fans wondering if they had anything in them to haul themselves back into this match. The answer came in spectacular style with just three minutes left as Griffiths curled a brilliant free kick over the wall into the bottom left hand side of Joe Hart’s goal.
Wow! That came from nothing. Suddenly, from nowhere, we were back in the match and sensing victory, optimism was quickly restored amongst the majority of the National Stadium. Just two minutes later, another free kick was awarded and Griffiths lined it up.
You just had that feeling something special was about to happen. Like most, I decided to get my phone out, set the camera to video and hit record in anticipation that Griffiths would deliver again. Could he do it again?
You bet he could!
Same technique, different side as the ball curled into Hart’s right hand side of the goal and it was an elation that Hampden hadn’t seen at International level since Gerard Piques own goal put us level with the then World Champions in 2010. Only this was on a completely different level. This was the Auld Enemy, this was us taking the lead going into injury time, this was to seal a famous victory!
Or so we thought!
Three minutes into injury time, a mistake by Armstrong from a breakaway gifted England possession and the ball fell to Raheem Sterling, who crossed the ball to the back post. With our ropey defence missing and Gordon not confident enough to try to come for the ball, the Premierships golden boot winner Harry Kane popped in with nobody anywhere near him to volley into the net and snatch a draw for the visitors, preserving their long unbeaten qualifying record.
Yet again, Scotland had got themselves into a position where a famous victory was within their grasp only to throw it away. No matter how often we do it, us fans never learn and the feeling of disappointment was even greater this time as it would’ve been our first home victory over the Auld Enemy in 32 years! More importantly, it cost us two crucial World Cup Qualifying points as our near two decade of tournament famine gets set to increase.
Yes, it can be argued that most would’ve taken a draw pre-match but, having got into a winning position so late on, deserved or not, it is so infuriating to see a draw snatched from the jaws of victory thanks to the failure of our defence to see the game out.
So where does the draw leave our hopes of going to Russia this time next year?
Well, wins for Slovenia over Malta and Slovakia in Lithuania means we are four points adrift of second with four games to play. Right now, to be in with a chance of being one of the eight best runners up out of nine, we need to take maximum points in all the remaining matches, which is a tough ask.
The last two games have shown massive improvement from the three nightmare performances in October and November (a lucky home draw to Lithuania and consecutive away abject 3-0 defeats in Slovakia and at Wembley), so there is some cause for optimism that we could, somehow, get back into contention.
Only six points from Lithuania then at home to Malta in September will do and we will also be hoping that our neighbours from down south defeat our main rivals for second at Wembley on both occasions to give ourselves a chance of overhauling them.
Being Scottish, you probably know what the outcome will be with the words “glorious failure” featuring in a new chapter in the history of the National team, where they give us hope before the inevitable fall.
However, maybe, just maybe, this limited group have found something inside them to defy us all and complete a remarkable turnaround from the despairs of last autumn on the Road to Russia!