Ricky Sbragia last night praised Jason Cummings’ tenacity and mental strength after the Hibernian striker overcame a first-half penalty miss to end a seven-game scoring drought with a match-winning double for Scotland Under-21s in Paisley.
The scrutiny surrounding the previously prolific 20-year-old’s recent loss of scoring form had been increased by a wretched open-goal miss for his club against Raith Rovers a week past Saturday, and he looked set for another day of frustration when, with his country trailing 1-0, his spot-kick – which he had won – was saved by Conor Brennnan, the Northern Ireland and Kilmarnock goalkeeper.
However, after Oliver McBurnie, the Swansea City striker, had stepped off the bench to equalise, Cummings netted two close-range goals – his first since scoring the winner against Hearts in the Scottish Cup six weeks previously – to keep alive Scotland’s slender hopes of qualifying for the 2017 European Championship in Poland. “Jason was always getting in the box and getting on the end of chances,” said head coach Sbragia. “I knew the time would come when he would score.
“Jason wasn’t the only one who found it difficult in the first half, but the introduction of Oli helped him because it’s a tough shift up there on your own.
“Throughout the week he never let himself get down. He was aware of not scoring but I never mentioned it to him and I never brought up the penalty miss at half-time either. It’s part of the game.”
Scotland, who had won only one of their previous five qualifiers of this campaign, made the worst possible start to yesterday’s must-win encounter when they fell behind after 13 minutes. Shay McCartan, the Accrington Stanley forward, curled in a free-kick from wide on the left and it eluded everyone before squirting past Jack Hamilton and into the net. It was a bad moment for the highly-regarded Hearts goalkeeper, who had been in such inspired form in his previous outing against France last Thursday.
The Scots were rocked but they had the perfect chance to respond when, in the 31st minute, Liam Donnelly was deemed to have handled the ball while trying to stop Cummings bursting into the box from the left flank. The Hibs striker grabbed the ball and placed it on the spot, but Brennan dived to his right to push away the low left-footed strike.
After knocking on the door early in the second half, the Scots levelled in the 58th minute when McBurnie, who had come on five minutes earlier, latched on to a pass from Ryan Christie and slotted a lovely composed finish past Brennan from eight yards out.
Cummings then got the monkey off his back with a 64th-minute goal which arrived seconds after his own brilliant strike from 25 yards out had been parried by Brennan. Christie collected the loose ball wide on the right and drilled it back across goal for the Hibs striker, who gleefully converted at the back post. After a barren month and a half, Cummings had only another 14 minutes to wait for his next goal as he took up a perfect position at the back post to tap in a low Stephen Kingsley cross from the left.
Despite the victory, Sbragia acknowledges that finishing second in a tough section and sneaking a play-off place remains a long shot. “Will we need four wins from four? Yes,” he said. “We’ve got Macedonia next and I’ve seen them four times and they are exceptional, no doubt about it. After a difficult game against Macedonia we’ve got to go to Iceland which is a massive game. I think we have a chance of stealing second place though.”