THANKS to a quirk of fate, the Tartan Army have a new hero. Because Ikechi Anya’s Nigerian father moved to Glasgow in order to earn a doctorate in metallurgy, Scotland appear to have struck gold.
After a highly promising substitute appearance against Belgium at Hampden last Friday night, the 25-year-old completed a remarkable introduction to international football with his outstanding display in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Macedonia in Skopje.
For Scotland manager Gordon Strachan, Anya’s emergence from relative obscurity is a priceless bonus as he looks to add a more progressive and attack-minded approach to the improved organisation and tactical discipline he has already instilled in the national team.
The Glasgow-born wide man’s unorthodox journey to the success he is now savouring has been well documented since his call-up to the Scotland squad. Anya has certainly come a long way since being released by Wycombe Wanderers six years ago, dropping into English non-league football and then reviving his career after a stint at Glenn Hoddle’s academy for drop-outs at Bisham Abbey. Now a key figure in Gianfranco Zola’s Watford side, Anya’s desire to represent the country of his birth rather than that of his Romanian mother or Nigerian dad looks to have significantly enhanced Strachan’s resources.
Anya tormented the Macedonian defence on Tuesday with his pace and trickery, sealing an exceptional performance with the first goal in the victory which lifted Scotland off the bottom of their World Cup qualifying group.
Strachan yesterday revealed details of a post-match exchange with Anya, already known simply as “Kech” by his new international colleagues, which illustrated the humble but determined approach which has taken the player from Football League rejection to World Cup qualifying involvement.
“After the game, Kech sat in the dressing room and said to me ‘thanks very much for giving me my caps’,” said Strachan.
“I just looked back at him and told him it was nothing to do with me. The lad did it himself. He was at Wycombe and then out of senior football for a year. He didn’t have a club but kept searching for one after going to Glenn Hoddle’s academy.
“He played reserve football in Spain, he worked his way back up. That’s what I really enjoy, seeing lads like Kech being successful. He has got such a great character and he is really infectious about the squad.
“He is wonderfully, wonderfully polite. Throw in the fact that he can play like he did against Macedonia, where he really was terrific, and it’s great for us. But he has determined his future, he has got to this stage himself. No-one else has done it for him.”
Anya struggled to articulate his delight after the match and was as self-effacing as he is courteous, keen to share the acclaim with the rest of the team on a night when Shaun Maloney’s 89th-minute free kick ensured Scotland got the victory they fully deserved.
“It was amazing,” said Anya. “I can’t really explain how it felt. It was perfect. I was lucky to start and luckily I had a good game.
“When you go on the pitch, you just focus on giving it your all. Sometimes you play good and sometimes you play bad. Luckily for me, things went well. But it’s not just about me, it was an amazing team performance.
“We were really disappointed to go in at half-time with the score still 0-0. I thought we could have had a couple of goals. Luckily Shaun came up and did what he did and got us the three points.”
For Strachan, there was no shortage of plus points in Skopje. While Macedonia performed poorly, it was attributable in part to Scotland’s players following their manager’s game plan with diligence, composure and no lack of conviction when they worked the ball into the attacking third of the pitch.
At the back, Scotland were generally solid as Strachan sticks by the Russell Martin/Grant Hanley central-defensive partnership which is shaping up as his first-choice pairing for the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, which starts next September.
Strachan’s deployment of Charlie Mulgrew as a holding midfielder alongside captain Scott Brown was another success, giving Scotland a robust platform for the four most advanced players – Anya, Maloney, Barry Bannan and Steven Naismith – to impose themselves on the Macedonian defence.
It would have been extremely rough on the Scots if they had been forced to settle for a share of the spoils after home substitute Jovan Kostovski cancelled out Anya’s strike with six minutes of regulation time remaining. But Maloney’s late winner helped restore Strachan’s faith in the footballing gods.
“At 1-1, I thought the game was being really cruel to our team,” added Strachan. “But then Shaun scored and you fall back in love with football all over again.
“It would have been so harsh on us had we not won the game. I couldn’t have imagined it, playing like we did and losing. I didn’t think we could have played like that, as well as we did on a poor surface away from home.”
It provided the firm evidence of progress under Strachan, which he had admitted beforehand Scotland had needed to deliver after consecutive defeats by England and Belgium. Now, he hopes he and his team will be afforded a little more leeway by those judging them as he tries to build positive momentum for the Euro 2016 campaign.
“We wanted progress, yeah, but we wanted a result as well as a performance on Tuesday,” he said. “We can’t keep trying to gauge every single game in terms of whether we are making progress. We’ll go back and forward, up and down, if we keep doing that. So we just need to let it run now and see where we end up.”