IT WAS Sir Alex Ferguson who first said of a footballer he admired that this was a “top, top player”. Soon after that, because they all follow the master, everyone was doing it but Gordon Strachan went two better before this game. Robert Lewandowski, he insisted, was a “top, top, top, top player”.
And suddenly, all too soon, with our qualifying hopes dangling, there was Lewandowski, first man in the line-up, giving the Polish anthem top, top, top, top laldy and looking to continue his stupendous scoring streak to end our interest in France 2016.
Rather too much weight, it seemed, had been attached to the fact The Big Lewandowski – wasn’t that a movie? – had failed to find the net in the 2-2 draw in Warsaw, having been put off his stroke by a clattering Gordon Greer challenge. He’d still to settle at Bayern Munich at that point but now the quiet spell was well and truly over. Last night the weight of Grant Hanley was put up against him and the grizzly defender was going to have to summon the spirits of Jim Holton, Gordon McQueen, Angus Og, the brawniest stevedore Peter Howson ever painted and lots of other really big guys if he was to survive.
Lewandowski had predicted he was going to be kicked off the ball, presumably with Hanley doing his share, after the Blackburn Rovers man had admitted with top comic timing that the physical was “maybe part of my game” – but The Big L had scored before Hanley could get close enough to properly introduce himself. Looking a tiny bit offside, Lewandowski collected a pass, sprinted into the box and beat David Marshall at the near post. It wasn’t a thing of beauty; he’d come round on to his right foot when the left would have been more elegant. Maybe he didn’t have a left. It was the tiniest of consolations. The Polish fans erupted. Firecrackers exploded. Our worst fears had been realised after just three minutes. The Poles chanted their version of “You only sing when you’re winning” and presumably it had lots of z’s in it.
The smoke from the flares during their anthem, which had engulfed the rooftop piper during ours, was lingering and adding to the gloom.
The pair presented quite a contrast. Lewandowski is sharp, precise and almost scientific in his application. Hanley, in a laboratory, would find himself in a heavy bottle of the darkest hue with at best a euphemistic label – “Rugged”, “No-nonsense” – and at worst a skull and crossbones and the warning “Highly inflammable”.
But Hanley wasn’t thumping him; no one in blue was. Scotland were in such a tearing hurry to get back into the match that for a while the action – rushed, scrappy and inconclusive as it was – happened at the other end. Meanwhile The Big L pranced dangerously on halfway while Hanley kept a close watch.
A favourite Lewandowski trick was skulking on Hanley’s shoulder, were a header back to the goalie to fall short. Did Poland have anyone else in their team? The No 9 sprung Jakub Blaszczykowski but he blaszczed it wide. Then Hanley of all people had a chance but didn’t offer evidence he had a right or a left, although the offside flag spared some of his embarrassment.
If Gordon Strachan’s men had looked to history for a good omen they would have noticed that this match was 50 years almost to the night since an initially-promising campaign – with being at England’s World Cup the fond wish – had blown up in Scotland’s faces at Hampden against Poland. The Scots had gained a good draw in Warsaw only for Billy Bremner, Denis Law, Alan Gilzean & Co to muck up at home.
Back then The Big L for Poland was Wlodzimierz Lubanski, although they didn’t actually need him in that game. As the first half wound up, Lewandowski became less prominent. Maybe Hanley was almost, whisper this, enjoying the contest. “I will try and relish it,” he’d said of facing the man Strachan claimed had been the best in the world for a month.
In the 43rd minute, something Lewandowski probably knew was coming occurred, but that won’t have made the sly dunt in the ribs from Scott Brown any less painful. Something more painful for his team was to follow: a Scotland goal. Out of just about nothing. But what a beauty Matt Ritchie’s strike was. It made everyone forget the huffing and puffing and anxiety and overhitting. And it was left- footed.
The second half began with two Lewandowski misses, poor ones by his standards, and in between Steven Naismith had somehow contrived to slide in and scoop the ball away from the Poland goal. Truly this was a brilliant clearance.
Then just after Hanley survived a penalty claim, the ball hitting one on his beefy shoulders, Scotland took the lead. It was another stunner: scorer Steven Fletcher. Yes, Steven Fletcher, also with the left. The frontman took the acclaim of the fans and among them some critics of his strike rate, turning round and pointing to the name on the shirt, as if to say: “It’s snappier than Lewandowski.”
The Big L was trampled by Alan Hutton; he seemed well out of the contest as Scotland strove fo r the whopper of a result their campaign had lacked. But at the death, the very death, he scored again. Strong drink was needed but couldn’t be found. The Polish journos had drunk the media-room bar dry watching training the night before.