These were not the circumstances in which Scotland had wanted to sign off from Hampden Park for nearly a year. It was the understandable hope of the Scottish Football Association that this month would have brought a pair of World Cup qualifying play-off fixtures.
Scotland are indeed competing in a pair of fixtures, one of which is at home and one away. However, there is no carrot of World Cup qualification on offer as Scotland prepare to head to Norway after last night’s rather drab temporary farewell to Hampden Park. The stadium is taking a break from hosting football matches as it prepares to be turned into an athletics-friendly venue. Following the latest 90 minutes of so-called action, the old ground is permitted to breathe a sigh of relief.
The size of crowd said everything about the low-key context even if the opponents were far from low rent. The United States have won 15 of their last 16 fixtures and are 22 places above Scotland in the Fifa rankings. They have qualified for the last seven World Cup finals and they have the impressive figure of Jurgen Klinsmann as manager.
He was wearing a pair of beige sleeks and Nike ‘sneakers’ in the technical area. It wasn’t the climate for the crisp slim fit white shirt with tidily rolled up sleeves, the look that he and then assistant Joachim Low made their own when in charge of Germany in the 2006 World Cup. But he still drew the gaze as he urged his players on.
However, not even his presence was enough to have the crowds flocking to Hampden for the last time before the stadium is temporarily converted into an athletics stadium ahead of next year’s Commonwealth Games. Unsurprisingly, only just over 20,000 turned up last night. Competitive football is what really rouses the Tartan Army. To be fair to the players, the first half was a near enough approximation of that. Perhaps fueled by the desire for revenge following last year’s 5-1 thumping in Florida, Scotland immediately set about their opponents.
Robert Snodgrass left Jermaine Jones in a heap in the centre circle and the English referee Michael Oliver enthusiastically waved play on. Barry Bannan then slid in on DaMarcus Beasley at the touchline and the former Rangers player had to hurdle over his boot. The United States too knew how to leave the foot in. Oliver Gonzalez endured an unhappy opening spell when he miskicked at the back post after a corner to mess up the visitors’ best chance of the game thus far before clumsily felling Steven Fletcher just outside the box. Charlie Mulgrew curled the free-kick just over.
It was turning into a surprisingly towsy encounter as the footballers sought to leave their mark on an arena that will be put to much different use early next summer.
Gordon Strachan, or Gordon S as he signs off his programme notes, was quick to underline the relevance of last night’s encounter. “Good evening and welcome to Hampden Park for tonight’s Vauxhall International Challenge match against the USA, the last match at the national stadium before redevelopment work begins ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games.” The manager viewed it as an opportunity to thank the fans for their “unwavering support” during the last campaign when Scotland managed only three victories, just one of which was at home.
Perhaps the need to go out on the road is not such a bad thing after all. And it is not as if it hasn’t had to happen before.
Of the 17 competitive internationals hosted by Scotland between 1993 and 1999, only six were played at the national stadium due to reconstruction work. So being forced to leave Hampden isn’t a completely new phenomenon. And even when Scotland have had the use of their stadium it hasn’t always gone well; the solitary home win in the last qualifiers was secured in the final game of the group, long after qualification had stopped being a live issue.
During the Hampden rebuilding phase games were taken elsewhere in what was a popular break from the norm since it meant that a good proportion of the team’s supporters didn’t have to make the trek to Glasgow for competitive games. While Celtic Park and Ibrox were of course utilised, Pittodrie, Rugby Park, Tynecastle and Easter Road also played host to Scotland fixtures.
Back then, of course, Friday night football had not become de rigueur. Its introduction has made games in Glasgow even more inaccessible for those coming from afar. Perhaps the change of stadiums will help kick-start Scotland’s home form next year, and there is the possibility that Strachan’s side will not be able to play the opening games of the Euro 2016 qualifiers at Hampden.
It was just a shame that the stadium wasn’t provided with a better send-off in terms of entertainment last night. While there was clearly an element of needle, the match itself began to drift into routine friendly fare in the second half, but not before Tim Howard had pulled off one of the saves of this or any year at Hampden, tipping over a goal-bound free kick effort from Snodgrass. Scotland should already have been one-up when Craig Conway was presented with a chance ten minutes before half-time, after a near lay-off from Fletcher.
But it wasn’t to be for the hero of the 2010 Scottish Cup final at this venue. He scored twice for Dundee United against Ross County on that occasion. This time, however, he made a weak connection and the ball bobbled wide.
The United States’ best chances arrived near the end when Grant Hanley cleared from nearly under the bar as Altidore prepared to swoop and then substitute Aron Johannsson shot wide from a good position.
The goalless draw left little else to be said except: bring on the athletics!