THERE was a time when every Scotland team contained a bustling wee winger from Castlemilk. When every Scotland full-back knew they always had an out ball, and oppositions lived in fear of a public humiliation at the feet of the dangerous dribbler.
SCOTLAND 2 - 1 MACEDONIA
There have been occasions in recent years when the national team took the field without any wingers, never mind effective ones, and on those occasions we might even have thought that our memories of greatness were illusory, no more than stories. But they were real enough, all right, and from the Wembley Wizards all of 85 years ago to Jimmy Johnstone in the 1960s and ‘70s they were in our teams.
No matter how complex modern football has become, no matter how jargon-ridden much of the analysis is, it remains a simple game at heart - or at least in the hearts of many Scots. Get the ball to the wee guy, and set him running at the full-back.
Ikechi Anya was the wee guy in question last night, and on his first start for Scotland he had a simply outstanding performance, inspiring the team to a 2-1 win over Macedonia which - with a little help from Serbia’s win in Wales - has taken them off the bottom of World Cup qualifying Group A.
When the team was announced, there were some complaints that Gordon Strachan had again gone with just one man up front in Steven Naismith. The way Anya played was proof that 4-5-1 need not be in the least negative, but depends for success on how the most advanced members of that midfield five perform.
From the first minutes onwards this was a far more positive, encouraging display than almost all of us had expected, as Scotland played at a higher tempo than their hosts and looked altogether more interested in playing football. In particular, there was a lively start by Anya in both attack and defence, with the Watford winger showing an eagerness to take on Daniel Georgievski down the left and being willing to track back all the way to his goal-line.
Naismith, too, showed adventure in the opening minutes with a hooked, over-the-shoulder shot from the right. Even if it did float wide of the far post, it was evidence of exactly the kind of attitude we had hoped for.
Midway through the half, with Macedonia still looking lackadaisical at best, those two Scots combined to produce the best chance of the game to date. Naismith got underneath Anya’s cross and headed it over the crossbar, but it was further encouragement for Scotland all the same.
So was Scott Brown’s chance just after the half-hour, when an excellent chip from Naismith put him through on Tome Pacovski. The captain looked sure to score, but the goalkeeper simply stood tall and blocked Brown’s too-predictable attempt at a finish.
Play was surprisingly open and free-flowing for that stage of the game, perhaps testament to the fact that neither side can qualify for next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil. But as long as Scotland remained on top without scoring, there was a fear that Macedonia would shake off their torpor, remember they were playing at home, and belatedly begin to impose themselves on their visitors.
They came so close to doing that in the dying minutes of the first half, just after Anya’s curling shot had produced a good save from Pacovski. A rapid counter-attack put Adis Jahovic clear down the left, but with Goran Pandev waiting for the cutback, he went for goal himself and only found the sidenetting.
Macedonia had made a change just before half-time, but when the second half began it was as if they had come back out with an entirely new line-up, so altered was their approach. More assertive, more positive, and above all more interested, they produced better play in the first five minutes of that half than they had done in the whole of the first.
Such an improvement appeared ominous for Scotland, and the script of the game began to take on a familiar look. One team does so much in the first half, fails to make its domination count, and then pays the price as the other side gets off the deck and delivers a knockout blow.
But that did not happen. Instead, at the end of what was easily the least impressive segment of the game from a Scottish point of view, that man Anya popped up again - and this time he did make it count.
With almost an hour played, it would have been forgivable if he had run himself into the ground. Indeed, he had seen so much of the ball in the first half, and expended so much energy, that you wondered if Strachan had told him he was only getting to play half the game so should make the most of it.
Not a bit of it. Instead, haring off down the left, he rifled a low shot to the far corner of Pacovski’s net, as calmly as if he was playing a game of fives with his mates and no-one was watching.
Inevitably, Macedonia’s pride was stung by that, and Matt Gilks, on for the second half in place of the injured David Marshall, was forced into a series of fine saves. Anya remained a danger, however, and was wrongly flagged offside when his speed beat the defence to a ball over the top. Continuing with his run despite the whistle, he chipped an effort over the bar and was shown a yellow card for his pains.
Still he was not done, and with 15 minutes to go he set up a chance for Shaun Maloney which the Wigan player pulled wide. That would surely have spelled the end for Macedonia, but, having survived that threat, they pulled level in the closing minutes thanks to an exquisite through ball from Pandev to Jovan Kostovski, newly on as a substitute.
The equaliser might have drained the life from Scotland, but they fought back, and got a deserved late winner from Maloney’s free-kick. As his team-mates surrounded him to celebrate, no-one was grinning more widely than Anya. And when the final whistle went a few minutes later, no-one deserved the victory more.