GORDON Strachan enjoyed the sweetest of his 16 matches in charge of Scotland so far as his team enhanced their prospects of Euro 2016 qualification with a crucial and deserved victory over Republic of Ireland.
Shaun Maloney’s magnificent goal 15 minutes from time was enough to secure three precious Group D points from a contest which, though short on quality, was a compelling spectacle.
Strachan emerged triumphant from the battle of former Celtic managers at the venue where they both enjoyed some of the highest points of their coaching careers. For Strachan, this will surely rank among the most satisfying of them all.
The pre-match mantra from the Scotland camp may have been of it not being a “must win” game but that fooled no-one, Poland’s win in Georgia earlier last night simply crystallised how vital it was for the Scots not to lose any more ground at this stage of an intensely competitive campaign.
Maloney’s moment of magic ensured they did not. For Scotland, who produced the best of what cohesive football there was on the night, it was a merited outcome.
Amid all the fevered anticipation of this fixture, few would have expected to witness an aesthetically pleasing example of the beautiful game. While Strachan’s men have succeeded in adopting a more expansive, fluid style of play in recent times, it was very much a case of back to basics for this one.
In a raucous atmosphere, it was an unforgiving and physical contest from the start. Grant Hanley conceded the first free-kick within the opening 20 seconds, setting the tone for a busy and thankless evening for Serbian referee Milorad Mazic.
Flair and invention were very much at a premium, suffocated by the relentless pace and often fractious nature of proceedings. The absence of James Morrison from the centre of Scotland’s midfield, the West Brom man ruled out on the morning of the game by illness, had already diminished the creative capacity of the home side in that department.
Charlie Mulgrew was drafted in to fill the role alongside captain Scott Brown, but much of the action by-passed that area of the pitch in any case. The visitors, who surprisingly dropped their talismanic record goalscorer Robbie Keane from their starting line-up for a competitive game for the first time in 13 years, adopted a direct and uncompromising approach.
There was an early flutter of alarm for the home fans when Jon Walters, partnered in attack by Keane’s replacement Shane Long, cut in from the right and got away a shot which David Marshall got down to clutch safely.
Scotland’s most encouraging early source of an attacking threat was Andrew Robertson as the precocious left-back charged forward to good effect on a couple of occasions. One dangerous run and cross from the Hull City player forced the concession of a corner which Maloney swirled over from the right for Steven Fletcher to head over.
Robertson was less effective at the other end of the pitch when his attempt to clear a Stephen Ward corner directed the ball invitingly into the path of Darron Gibson. Fortunately for the Scots, the Everton midfielder’s powerful half-volley was straight at Marshall who held it well.
Hanley collected the first caution of the evening for a foul on Long which the Irish argued had denied the Southampton striker a clear run at Marshall’s goal. They were calling for further action against Hanley a few minutes later when goalkeeper David Forde went down under his challenge. O’Neill’s assistant Roy Keane was off his seat to lead the protests that Hanley had deliberately elbowed Forde but the referee decided a free-kick was sufficient punishment.
The widely predicted jeering of Aiden McGeady from the Tartan Army briefly turned to cheers when he was next to see a yellow card for a poor challenge on Fletcher. Jeff Hendrick followed him into the book for an equally cynical foul on Steven Whittaker as the Irish succeeded in preventing the Scots finding any sustained rhythm.
There was a better spell for the home side in the final ten minutes of the first half as some clever link-up play, notably involving Fletcher and Steven Naismith, created some openings. Mulgrew should have done better than head a Maloney cross over from close range, then Fletcher was unable to connect cleanly with another excellent delivery from the little Wigan man.
Scotland were unable to carry that momentum into the opening stages of the second half and it was Ireland who enjoyed one of their most menacing periods of the evening. McGeady showed great footwork on the right to engineer space for a cross which Hanley managed to head behind before the lurking Walters could connect.
Marshall was becoming more involved in the action, reacting smartly to hold Long’s close-range header and then diverting a low snapshot from McGeady wide of the target.
Scotland were forced into a change when Fletcher limped off and his replacement, Derby County striker Chris Martin, passed up a glorious chance to ingratiate himself with the home fans in the 66th minute. A slick move down the right allowed Naismith to drive into the penalty area and cut the ball back for Martin, only for him to send his shot the wrong side of Forde’s left hand post.
It had at least got Scotland back onto the front foot and they were able to build up a burst of pressure which led to Maloney’s breakthrough.
The corner which brought the goal was conceded by Walters when he headed a wickedly delivered free-kick from Mulgrew onto the top of his own crossbar and over.
The subsequent set piece from the left was worked perfectly by Scotland, catching the Irish defence flat-footed as Maloney exchanged passes with Brown before stepping forward and curling an exquisite right-foot shot beyond Forde’s left hand into the corner of the net.
O’Neill sent on Keane in an attempt to salvage the situation and in a desperate finale, Scotland were forunate to see Hanley head against his own crossbar as the Irish threw everyone forward.
But Scotland, who have now lost just one of their last ten matches, held out to claim their first competitive victory over the Irish for 53 years.
Scotland: Marshall, Whittaker, R Martin, Hanley, Robertson, Maloney, Mulgrew (D Fletcher 88), Brown, Anya, Naismith, S Fletcher (C Martin 55). Subs not used: Gordon, Berra, Dorrans, Greer, Bannan, Burke, Russell, May, Gilks. Booked: Hanley, Robertson. Goals: Maloney, 74.
Rep. of Ireland: Forde, Coleman, Keogh, O’Shea, Ward, McGeafy, Hendrick (Keane 78), Gibson (Quinn 69), McClean, Walters, Long (Brady 68). Subs not used: Randolph, Clark, Christie, Meyler, Pilkington, Given, Murphy, Pearce. Booked: Coleman, McGeady, Hendrick.
Ref: M Mazic (SER)