IT FELT strange to have the words of John Brown reverberating in the head at Hampden last night.
The Dundee manager had unwittingly found himself dominating, along with Gareth Bale, the pre-match agenda, after making an injudicious comment with regards to how Scotland should combat the threat posed by the winger.
“He can’t run with no legs,” suggested the former Rangers midfielder. Brown found himself roundly condemned, with Gordon Strachan among those who scolded him. “There is no-one called Chopper Harris in the game these days,” Strachan responded.
There is, though, someone who goes by the nick-name ‘The Gruffalo’. You might otherwise know him as Grant Hanley, who was chiefly responsible for ending Bale’s evening, with a thunderous challenge from behind five minutes from half-time. For his next trick Hanley produced the game’s opening goal, in first-half injury time.
James McArthur had already followed Brown’s advice more literally, with a tackle that whipped Bale’s legs from under him. Scotland were finally getting to grips with the playmaker, and it was no coincidence that this more robust approach coincided with Scotland finally making some headway in a match in which they had been little more than bystanders.
However, the cruel irony is that having flirted on the margins of what is legal and what is not, and profited from this approach, they sabotaged their own progress with a tackle from Robert Snodgrass on Chris Gunter that was blatantly ill-judged, and dangerous. Scotland hurt themselves, three times over.
Snodgrass was sent off for his second bookable offence, and referee Antony Gautier awarded a penalty against Scotland, from which Aaron Ramsey equalised for Wales. Four minutes later, Hal Robon-Kanu headed in what proved to be the winner for Wales, who proved that they can prosper even without Bale, who was replaced at half-time by Jonathan Williams after his ankle knock had been aggravated by the combination of Hanley and McArthur challenges. Bale’s class had shone as Wales preyed on Scotland’s unease, as Strachan’s slightly surprising line-up struggled to impose themselves on the proceedings.
In the end, and after all the pre-match hysteria over Bale’s suspect ankle and debilitating flu virus, it was Scotland who were the ones who were deprived of their English Premier League star. However, Steven Fletcher knows he is a long way from provoking the low hum of dread that accompanied Bale’s every move last night, prior to the Welsh winger’s own premature departure.
Fletcher’s unfortunate ankle turn saw Kenny Miller brought on after only three minutes. The delay was a brief moment of interlude in as poor a start as Scotland have made to a match at Hampden Park, certainly in this writer’s memory. Fletcher’s loss was barely registered as Scotland struggled to break from their own half, with Bale, as expected, a principal orchestrator. Wales appeared to want to tease their lightweight opponents. Hampden grumbled its disapproval.
Spare a thought for Alan Hutton, whose list of things to do in the past week has included keeping first Cristiano Ronaldo at bay in the Bernebeu, and then Bale at Hampden. The full- back struck grimly to his task in rather more inclement conditions last night than in Spain last weekend. Bale, however, didn’t hang around long on the left wing. He didn’t hang around long anywhere, flitting here and there across the pitch, before finally disappearing from view completely. Not that this helped Scotland’s cause.
Bales’s virus had seen the Tottenhan Hotspur winger train in isolation on Thursday night, and here he was again plenty of space in which to roam. The subject of so much coverage in the run-up to the game did not disappoint. He was everywhere. If you happened to briefly lose sight of him from the stands as the snowflakes fell ever more thickly, the chorus of boos signalled that he had the ball at his feet again. Bale should be flattered by the reaction. It is the type that is reserved for truly great players, and for a spell in the first half, as his team-mates appeared intent to try and tee him up with shooting opportunities, Bale seemed set to run amok, ensuring that these jeers stuck in the throats of the Tartan Army.
The judgement from the stands recognised his potency and potential danger to Scotland, but it also referenced his part in the penalty that set Craig Levein’s side on the way to defeat in Cardiff five months ago.
It was notable that Scotland were almost standing off Bale, although he was hard to pin down. One minute he was on the left, and the next he was calling for the ball in the middle of midfield, where again he seemed to find the space he required. One shot, after Jack Collison pushed a ball into his path, almost out-foxed Allan McGregor as it moved in the air, although the goalkeeper managed to beat it away.
Gordon Strachan was being true to his word. He wanted the players to have the freedom to express themselves. Sadly for Scotland, the most skilful player on show was Welsh, and allowing Bale the time and opportunity to do what he does best was not helping Scotland’s chances of taking something from the game.
They did, though, recover, and Hampden found its voice again, as the temperature continued to plummet. Bale’s non-appearance after half-time lifted the spirits of the home supporters further, and they greeted news of his substitution with a song that wondered who he was. Wales managed just fine without him, as Scotland suffered for Snodgrass’ rashness.