WHEN a thoroughbred delivers a six-length victory in a low-grade race, the performance may be visually breathtaking, but the horse’s connections know better than to start dreaming of winning the Derby.
No such wisdom appears to have a place among the musings of the great majority of commentators and “analysts” of the work of Scotland’s national football team.
On the contrary, Gordon Strachan’s squad’s prospects of not merely qualifying for, but actually winning the next European championship in France in 2016 seemed to soar on the wings of a short-head triumph over Macedonia, opponents whose pre-match 89th place in the Fifa world rankings identifies them as unambiguously selling class.
The Scots themselves entered the World Cup qualifier in Skopje on Tuesday at No 50, a level that is the preserve of very moderate handicappers. Yet the fevered aftermath of the 2-1 victory, secured by Shaun Maloney’s goal just four minutes from the end, suggested the kind of transformation that warranted headlines proclaiming a Miracle In The Balkans.
The head-turning, judgement-distorting chauvinism that was the commonest feature of the widespread reaction to the performance and the result reinforced the astuteness of JK Galbraith’s assertion that desperate men are easily persuaded because they wish desperately to be persuaded.
Any relief from the tortuous experiences of Scotland supporters over the past decade or so makes a tendency towards exaggerated notions of progress understandable and excusable. But some of the gushing eulogies in midweek owed nothing to properly rationalised criticism and everything to impulsive fervour.
As a consequence, the viewer/listener/reader could have been led, for example, to the belief that Steven Naismith, a non-starter and non-scorer at Everton, had suddenly morphed into Marco van Basten. Barry Bannan, transferred to Crystal Palace because he could not command a place at Aston Villa, became the new Michel Platini and, of course, Ikechi Anya, the Watford winger virtually unknown a week earlier, might have been the reincarnation of Alan Morton.
Only the bloody-minded would quibble with the praise reserved for Anya, whose first start (following his debut as a substitute against Belgium) was incontrovertibly excellent, unforgettably topped with a wonderfully-executed opening goal.
His performance undoubtedly encouraged the hope that he will become a genuine star, but in too many quarters this eventuality was assumed. It is surely not unreasonable to bear in mind that he will be 26 in January and has been hitherto anonymous, hinting at a career so far that has been relatively quiet.
The player himself could not have asked for more feeble opposition against whom to make his first full appearance and sterner proving grounds are undoubtedly yet to be negotiated.
It should be remembered, too, that, despite their general superiority over a seriously poor team, Scotland were still being held to a 1-1 draw with the game drawing to a close. Without Maloney’s decisive strike, the glossy reports would have quickly been given a matt finish. This is no idle speculation, as the history of criticism in the game is awash with examples of analyses (almost invariably wayward) being driven entirely by a scoreline.
Chroniclers of this columnist’s vintage are familiar with the story of one of our then veteran colleagues, a Sunday paper man whose wicked deadline necessitated his starting to dictate a Scotland match report just before the finish. With the dark blue shirts leading 1-0, he picked up the phone and intoned, “Magnificent Scotland last night…”.
At that precise moment, the equaliser was conceded, and the reporter told the copy taker he would have to start again. He began, “This won’t do, Scotland…”.
The hysterical reception of the achievement in Macedonia was the more puzzling because it occurred only four days after what should have been an eternally sobering experience in the company of seriously talented rivals, the Belgium side who have climbed to sixth in the world rankings.
That the visitors should leave Hampden with a 2-0 victory was mainly attributable to their own complacency in the matter of converting enough opportunities at least to have doubled the margin. Quicker, stronger, cleverer and immeasurably more self-assured than the Scots, Marc Wilmots’s resurgent team gave an irresistible demonstration of the difference between the average and the exceptional.
And yet, even presented with this incontestable evidence, there seemed to be a lingering conviction among many commentators that the Scots had performed creditably. With the Belgians leading 1-0 at half-time and already confirming their irreducible superiority, the man from Sky told viewers: “Well, despite their growing reputation in world football, the Belgians haven’t had it all their own way”. This particular viewer was left to boggle over what, in his eyes, would constitute “having their own way”.
Those who took comfort from what they claimed to be a “much-improved” show from Scotland in the second half were simply seeking refuge in self-delusion. If there was a period of blandness, it was that phenomenon that is common to matches in which one team is emphatically better than the other.
Strachan’s team during that spell did not look any more likely to inflict damage; they merely (temporarily) reduced the relentlessness of the Belgians’ oppression. It should be stressed, too, that the victory was impressively gained without their two best players, Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany.
If, however, there is no shame in losing to opponents as accomplished as Belgium, there is no glory in taking care of rivals as impoverished as Macedonia.
What is easy to sense about Scotland under Strachan is a renewed enthusiasm and vigour, with better organisation and deeper tactical appreciation.
In an international context, however, the players remain unmistakably average, a drawback that cannot not be camouflaged by a victory over Macedonia.