Tom English: ‘They cannot seem to defend a lead without one of them doing something ruinous’

Shaun Maloney. Picture: Robert Perry
Shaun Maloney. Picture: Robert Perry
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IF YOU’VE seen the spoof documentary – or if you will, the rockumentary – about the hilariously slapstick band Spinal Tap you might recall the scene when the guitarist Nigel Tufnel is presented with the front cover of Tap’s new album, basically a large black square.

Tufnel looks at it with a studied intensity. “It’s like, how much more black could this be?” he asks himself. “And the answer is none. None more black.”

I can’t think of a better description of Friday’s experience at Hampden. None more black. Up there among the footballing Gods, somebody is having a right old laugh at Scotland. It’s as if some malevolent force was at work on Friday night, identifying a nation’s optimism under Gordon Strachan and then crushing it, offering hope with the unexpected Grant Hanley header only to spirit up that barmy endgame just when the Scots were beginning to believe that they had things under control. Can’t have that. This is Scotland, so let’s pile on the misery. Let’s have sub-zero temperatures. Let’s have biting wind. Let’s have sleet. Let’s have snow. Let’s really crank it up here. Let’s dangle a carrot of victory and then replace it with a sledgehammer of defeat. Let’s make sure that by the end of the night they are not only frozen half to death but sickened at the sight of the group table. Played five, won zero. The worst ever. Ever. None more black.

Strachan will have thawed out by now but he’ll still have an icy feeling from Friday night. To lose one game against the Welsh from a winning position (last October under his predecessor Craig Levein) was bad enough, but to lose a second game in pretty similar circumstances tends to illustrate that, on top of their shortcomings as footballers, this current Scotland squad has a mental problem as well. They cannot seem to defend a lead without one of them doing something ruinous under pressure, be it Charlie Adam turning his back on Gareth Bale and allowing him to score the winner last year or Robert Snodgrass giving away a penalty and getting a red card.

The Scotland manager spoke in the aftermath about the lack of experience at the heart of his midfield. He didn’t name names but you presume he was talking about his absent trio, Scott Brown, Darren Fletcher and James Morrison, who have all the experience that Strachan could possibly want. The only problem is that the experience is that of defeat. All three were there in Cardiff on the night Scotland lost to Bale’s wonder goal last October. Experience didn’t help the team back then. Is there any reason to believe that it would have helped the team on Friday?

Scotland didn’t handle the occasion at Hampden. That’s the truth of it. Wales dominated the match from the start. They owned the ball. They imposed themselves on proceedings. These are the things that Scotland should have been doing in their supposed new dawn and in front of their own people, but whenever they got the ball they gave it away. The first half hour at Hampden was as bad as we have seen from Scotland for quite some time.

When Wales got suckered by Hanley’s goal from the blue and then suffered a second blow with the loss of their great inspiration, Gareth Bale, at half-time, the visitors lost their way for a little while, but they recovered. Scotland allowed them to recover. They had chances to make it two and didn’t take them and the story of this team tells us that they are not good at holding out when in the lead. They buckle and then break. It has happened too often in too many campaigns to deny it.

Strachan will have known the scale of the challenge facing him long before Friday night, but maybe he was surprised at how far he has to climb with this team. Defensively, Scotland are always an accident waiting to happen, particularly in central defence where some near calamitous things occurred against the Welsh even before they drew level with the penalty. The reality is that Scotland have many of their toughest games yet to come. They have to play Croatia home and away, they have to play Belgium again, at home, they have to travel to Macedonia and before all of that they have to go to Serbia on Tuesday to face a side that may not be any great shakes but one that was good enough to batter the Welsh 6-1 earlier in the campaign.

Is there another chastening night in store this week? You’d almost bet your mortgage on it. It’s not just the technical ability of this team that troubles you, it’s the psychology. And the psychology took another hit in Friday’s maelstrom.

Rangers’ Sandaza hoax response – is it fuelled by anger or penny pinching?

The duping of Francisco Sandaza was a humourless and grubby attempt to cause trouble for a player at a club that the hoaxer detests.

It was a hard listen. All the while you want Sandaza to snap out of the trance he seems to be in when talking to the chancer on the other end of the phone, but he never does. All the while you want him to twig that the guy is nothing more than a cheap con-man with a cringe-makingly stupid storyline, but the Spaniard laps it up naively. At one point, the wiseguy tells Sandaza that there are “too many crackpots out there”. Well, there’s at least one, we know that for sure.

For revealing personal details of his contract and appearing willing to walk out on Rangers should a better offer come along, Sandaza has now been suspended by his club pending an investigation. The cynics among us might suggest

that he may have been shown a whole lot more understanding by Rangers had he been banging in the goals all season, but he has only scored two from the 18 games he has played in an injury-hit campaign. That’s not much of a return from a striker who is costing Rangers £4,500 a week and who will cost them £5,500 a week next season if he is still at the club. What is it that Rangers are looking at most closely here? The words that Sandaza spoke or the pounds they may save if they sack him?