Tom English: Scots are different but still the same

Craig Bellamy greets Gordon Strachan before kick-off at Hampden. Picture: SNS
Craig Bellamy greets Gordon Strachan before kick-off at Hampden. Picture: SNS
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SCOTLAND have a new manager, a new assistant manager, a new assistant to the assistant, but the same propensity for implosion, the debacle in Cardiff in October repeated in Glasgow, penalty for penalty, cock-up for cock-up.

Gareth Bale wasn’t the devastating force of the autumn – he was hardly a force at all and only lasted 45 minutes – but still Wales found a way of winning. For that they can salute the likes of Aaron Ramsey and young Jonathan Williams who replaced Bale, but mostly they should thank their hosts for their death-wish.

Two goals in two minutes; one a penalty that also brought a red card for Robert Snodgrass whose lack of cool in the circumstances was lamentable. The second was a calamity, too. The whole night was. After one competitive game Gordon Strachan’s honeymoon is over. He heads to Serbia next with a squad whose confidence has shot to smithereens.

This bright new dawn of Strachan’s. Nothing bright about it. It was cold and wet and snowing. In the third minute, Steven Fletcher was away on a stretcher, his knee in a brace. The weather was emblematic of the performance. Grim. Down on the pitch there wasn’t the slightest suggestion that Scotland under the new boss were any better than Scotland under the old one. It was just, well, the same. The same uncertain defending, the same cheap loss of the ball, the same inability to dictate the tempo. The same.

After 15 minutes the stats men figured out that Wales had enjoyed 78 per cent possession, the only wonder being that the number wasn’t higher. Such was the visitors’ monopoly of the ball and the hosts increasingly aggressive and futile attempts to get it off them the thought occurred that maybe Bomber Brown had been drafted into Strachan’s inner-circle overnight. They can’t run if they don’t have legs. Some of Scotland’s tackling was risqué to say the least. For the longest time bite in the tackle was all they had. That and an early booking for Snodgrass. From early in this match the Norwich midfielder looked fired-up to an unhealthy degree, the devastating confirmation of that coming later.

Football teaches you not to second-guess things. Never do it. After the opening half the temptation was to think that Scotland had escaped the worst of the evening and were looking good for victory thanks to a goal from an improbable source. We thought this way in Cardiff, too. We were wrong then as well.

The irony of the opening half was that the man who spent much of it looking as jittery as a kitten ended it with the cheers of Hampden ringing in his ears. Grant Hanley has spent his season toiling in the madhouse that is Blackburn Rovers and carried on the routine here, beginning hesitantly and getting ever more vulnerable in his positioning and his passing as the half wore on. His moment of glory would come soon enough, a headed miracle from a Charlie Mulgrew corner in the dying seconds of the period. Lucky, lucky Scotland. But better to be lucky than good. The vibe at the break was optimistic. Scotland had been wretched for much of it, but they were ahead. Did anything else matter?

Actually, yes. Wales were the better team despite Scotland having the lead. And the better team would come again.

Scotland’s sloppiness had caused panicky moments. Hanley left a ball to Allan McGregor at one point and didn’t appear to be aware of Bale’s menacing presence behind him. The danger came and went and came again, most of it because of Scotland’s awful mis-use of the ball. James McArthur dallied and got sacked in midfield and that brought a flutter of worry. Bale’s shot and McGregor’s save brought another. These seemed like massively important moments and the fact that Scotland emerged the other side of them without conceding was a hell of a lift. It looked meaningful at the time.

The truth is that were dominated by Wales, but Wales didn’t have the elan they had in Cardiff last year. They had Gareth Bale but not GARETH BALE! The genius was not himself from the start, didn’t have the pace and the ruinous dynamism of his best stuff, didn’t go by players, didn’t impose himself on the match in the way he can and nearly always does these days.

You have to credit Scotland with an efficient job in crowding him out, but the truth about Bale’s lack of impact probably had more to do with his health than anything else. Fighting a virus all week, he never really looked like he’d gotten over it before suffering a knock in the first half, a blow that brought an end to his evening. Hampden didn’t exactly weep when the news was relayed over the public address system.

A goal to the good and no Bale to worry about and now Scotland had possession. They had territory. They had chances, too. Kenny Miller had a shot charged down by Sam Ricketts. Amid a sustained period of Scotland dominance, Snodgrass snapped a left-foot shot agains Boaz Myhill’s left-hand post. If only, if only. If only Fletcher hadn’t gone off so painfully early. If only the headed chances that fell to Kenny Miller in the first half had fallen to the Sunderland striker, he of the deadly head.

The what-might-have-beens soon came in waves. With 19 minutes left and the game seemingly under some sort of control, Snodgrass did something dense, giving away a penalty and getting himself sent off. It was the defining moment of the night, an unthinking, unprofessional and utterly maddening lunge in the box on Chris Gunter, initially given as a free-kick by referee Anthony Gautier but in seconds revised upwards to a penalty. Having already been booked, Snodgrass walked. By the time he’d reached the private hell of the dressing room Ramsey had smacked in the equaliser via the underside of McGregor’s crossbar.

Scotland then got suckered. They shot themselves in the foot with the concession of the first, then reloaded and shot again. An Andy King cross drifted between Gary Caldwell and Hanley, a pair of ball-watchers neither of whom knew what was happening around them. Hal Robson-Kanu had time to glance a header past McGregor and bring Hampden to silence.

The silence – like Scotland’s lead – didn’t last. On the final whistle there was booing. Not a lot , but enough to remind Strachan of the mountainous job he has on his hands and the crushing and self-inflicted fall his team suffered here.