SO THIS is how a European Championship qualifying campaign ends. Not with a fiesta in Faro, but with a straightforward 6-0 victory over amateurs greeted with surprising enthusiasm by the redoubtable Tartan Army.
It is not the result that matters but the reception the players and, most notably Gordon Strachan, received afterwards. If this doesn’t convince him to stay on, nothing will.
Steven Fletcher scored his second hat-trick against Gibraltar, which is one of the few details of note from a mostly meaningless match.
How the fans wished at least a couple of these goals could have come elsewhere, such as in Georgia for example. An already defunct campaign was wound up in the Algarve. From Dortmund to the doldrums. Even the weather was underwhelming.
It has been a long 13 months since Scotland’s quest began with such hope in Germany. Here Scotland finally earned their first away victory of a campaign that promised far more than it delivered.
Tasked only with ending their Euro 2016 on a positive note, they dealt efficiently enough with the limited challenge posed by Gibraltar. Chris Martin and Shaun Maloney got things up and running with first-half goals. Fletcher’s second-half hat-trick means he has another ball to add to the one he collected after three goals against the same opponents in March. Steven Naismith added a sixth at the end, in front of just over 12,000 supporters – most of whom were Scottish.
Perhaps the most noteworthy element of an assignment even Gordon Strachan had branded “pointless” last week was the support the Tartan Army offered the manager, who is still debating his future.
It was only two minutes into the match when the chorus “One Gordon Strachan” was struck up. Strachan waved a hand back. There were periodic outbreaks of this song throughout the 90 minutes. There is clearly an appetite for him to remain in place.
These songs rang out across a stadium that was supposed to be where Scotland would secure a play-off place for Euro 2016 at the very least.
Instead, it became the scene of a slightly surreal love-in. The troubles of recent weeks have been forgotten, or at least put to one side. It is clear most fans are prepared to forgive and forget a campaign that was never given the chance to reach a crescendo.
Still, it all felt tremendously polite last night. Gibraltar manager Jeff Wood’s programme notes suffered for a tight printing deadline.
Written before last Thursday’s decisive 2-2 draw with Poland, he clearly expected Scotland to still be in the equation. He welcomed Strachan, “who will be looking to ensure progress to the finals after an impressive qualifying campaign”. If only Jeff, if only.
The Scotland players were applauded as they drifted onto the pitch to begin warming-up. There was no seething anger, no apparent desire for recriminations; Scotland had not been good enough, end of story. They have been unlucky at times, sure. But Strachan’s contention that they should be two points better off would still not have secured a third-place finish.
At least that seemed to be mood of the majority who were in attendance last night. Their loyalty knows no bounds. It’s possible to wonder whether their chorusing of “One Gordon Strachan” could be what convinces him to stay. It is nice to be wanted. Strachan was left in little doubt that this was the preference of most in the stadium last night. A game might have been going on but the manager’s future was the main issue in a fixture that mattered little.
The potential difficulty was that Gibraltar weren’t feeling the same way. Only recognised by UEFA as recently as 2013, every match is a special occasion for them. Scotland needed to be wary. After all, Gibraltar were looking to complete the double against the Scots – a goal (at least) in each fixture. Their goal at Hampden, the first official goal scored by Gibraltar, is one of only two they have scored in this qualifying campaign. This remains their total.
There were some concerning moments last night with the scores still level. It took Scotland nearly 25 minutes to break the deadlock. Like at Hampden in March, Gibraltar managed to avoid losing the very early goal teams like them dread.
Scotland wasted chances to make the night an extra long one for the hosts. Maloney saw an early effort from Fletcher’s cross deflected over the bar. Fletcher then somehow headed over after Alan Hutton’s centre.
Jamie Robba, the Gibraltar goalkeeper, looked particularly inspired in the beginning, saving an effort from Fletcher with his feet. Scotland managed to get the ball past the ‘keeper in the 24th minute but there was some debate over who applied the final touch. Arguing over who scored a goal against Gibraltar is a slightly undignified scenario but both men involved in the debate – Martin and Gordon Greer – were claiming a first international goal, so it held considerable significance for them.Martin, it seemed, was the one whose claim was most valid. The Derby County striker helped the ball over the line after Greer had met Maloney’s corner with a looping header.
Maloney then scored his fifth goal of the campaign with a neat finish into the top corner after Graham Dorrans’ shot was blocked by a defender. Fletcher finally got on the score-sheet after 52 minutes, heading Hutton’s cross firmly past Robba. He scored his sixth of the campaign with a side-foot finish in off the far post after Martin’s pass and then sealed his hat-trick with his best goal since last Thursday – a powerful shot from the edge of the box that bashed back down off the bar and over the line.
Naismith, who replaced Martin with 15 minutes left, scored at the death with a well-aimed drive after a neat exchange of passes with Fletcher. But these were all mere details in the final analysis. Scotland’s fate was not sealed here, on a pleasant stretch of Atlantic Ocean coastline. It was elsewhere.
SCORERS: Scotland - Martin (24′), Maloney (39′), Fletcher (52′, 56′, 85′), Naismith (90′)