WE WERE not looking for a resounding victory. If we’re being honest, or realistic, we were maybe not looking for a victory at all. Or even a draw.
But the minimum requirement was the odd sliver of hope. Even if Scotland were to lose to Serbia – something we were aware was a distinct possibility – we wanted something we could identify as progress. A few green shoots of optimism, at least, after Friday’s scorched earth of a game against Wales.
We didn’t get it. A 2-0 defeat was not utter humiliation, but there was hardly anything encouraging about it. Liam Bridcutt showed promise in midfield, Grant Hanley had a few good touches in defence, and that was just about our lot.
Suddenly, Mickey Thomas no longer seems like an irrelevant has-been when he describes this Scotland team as the worst in their history. Steadily, those people who lambasted Craig Levein for his stewardship are realising that, while he did indeed make mistakes, the problems with the national team by no means began and ended with the manager. Slowly, Gordon Strachan is craning his head backwards and staring up at a host of problems which are threatening to overwhelm him.
When everyone left the 20th century, most of us headed straight into the 21st. Judged on the evidence of the past dozen years, Scotland seem to have regressed to the 19th.
At least the SFA realised some time ago that you cannot merely address the deficiencies of the national game at the top level. You have to start far lower down, which is why right now performance director Mark Wotte, not Strachan, is probably the most important man in Scottish football.
But it’s still going to be a long haul. And perhaps the first real step on our road to recovery will come when we admit how bad we have really become, and how far we have been left behind not only by the giants of the game, but also by smaller countries such as Wales.
The way the Welsh started their 2-1 victory on Friday gave you the impression that Chris Coleman had simply convinced them that they were vastly superior football players. They oozed self-belief, stroking the ball around with a calmness that completely confounded those of us who had expected a typically British battle.
Serbia’s opening salvoes in last night’s World Cup qualifier were altogether more urgent, but still suggested that Sinisa Mihajlovic had given them a similar message to the one delivered by Coleman. Perhaps “You’re better than this lot – go out there and prove it as soon as you can”, rather than the Welshman’s “You’re better than this lot – show your true ability and the goals will come”. But still a message that told his players they deserved to be masters of the contest.
Such a message is not one that Gordon Strachan could impart to his squad with any credibility. Instead, he surely told his team that they were better than they had shown in the game he dubbed Freaky Friday; that they should keep their shape and make the sort of solid start that imbues confidence in a team.
Well, if he did tell them that, they can’t have been listening very well. Never mind Freaky Friday, the loose way Scotland defended down their left in the opening minute of the game meant this was close to being labelled Traumatic Tuesday.
Thankfully, after that curiously comatose start, the defence soon clicked into gear. Hanley enjoyed several timely interventions, among them a vital flick clear in the box which probably prevented a goal, and a tackle which was as thumpingly physical as it is possible to get without being penalised.
Bridcutt, one of two new caps along with George Boyd, played as important a role as Hanley further forward. Though the Serbs were the better team in the first half, the midfielder did a lot to stem their attacks before they became too advanced.
Jordan Rhodes was a peripheral figure during that first half in his first competitive start for Scotland, and there was no goal in stoppage time to provide encouragement as there had been four days earlier. But it was a satisfactory opening 45 minutes all the same.
Indeed, it might even have been more than satisfactory had the referee awarded a penalty for handball rather than incorrectly signalling that Branislav Ivanovic had used his chest to block a cross. The early inattention had not been punished, and though Serbia had beaten Wales 6-1 on this ground, the sticky surface was proving to be a leveller.
With Charlie Adam on for James McArthur, the second half began in just as encouraging a fashion, and Steven Naismith even had the ball in the net within minutes, albeit from an offside position. But then whatever self-belief the team had been able to muster in the opening hour was put under severe threat when Filip Djuricic scored twice within five minutes.
The first was arguably unlucky from a Scotland point of view, caused in part by an awkward bounce in the box, albeit after Alan Hutton had allowed an attack to develop down the Serbs’ left. But the second was simply the result of over-ponderous play by captain Gary Caldwell, who should have taken the safety-first option of sending the ball out of play rather than passing upfield to Hutton, whose reaction to the danger was less than mongoose-like.
At least it didn’t get any worse after that; not on the scoresheet anyway. But it didn’t get better either, and both teams played the last ten minutes as if they were guddling around in a great bowl of porridge. Only one team was enjoying the experience.