Andrew Smith: Scotland lose way in the dying of the light

Scott Brown made his international comeback but could not stop Scotland losing 3-0 to England at Wembley.  Picture: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Scott Brown made his international comeback but could not stop Scotland losing 3-0 to England at Wembley. Picture: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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There was no sign of a stetson or a gun belt to accompany his suit, but Gordon Strachan selected a side last night that was a statement. A statement that surely mutated into his last will and testament as Scotland manager.

With eight changes from the side that slumped to 3-0 slaying in Slovakia for the Wembley assignment that brought more woe, it was surely a case of Strachan saying that if he was to go down, it would be with his boots on.

There were a good few others with their boots – and lurid pinks strips – on against England that weren’t expected to be pitched into the desperate scrap that the first competitive international for Scotland in north London represented for the national team and their manager.

Beforehand, it was the international comeback of Scott Brown, following a retirement of 70 days from the scene, that was supposed to be the one that would claim the focus. Yet, there were comebacks of sorts in all departments of the visiting side.

Short of switching to a back three, there was considered little possibility of Christophe Berra making his first appearance for Scotland in a high-profile competitive outing in the three-and-a-half year era.

The Ipswich Town man supplanted Russell Martin, however, and didn’t look out of place. It was the same story with surprise right-back Ikechi Anya.

The 28-year-old had never played that position for Scotland previously, but that he did so last night was another example of Strachan throwing his template to the wind in the hope that a new approach would bring a change of direction with the trajectory of his tenure.

The decision to start with Leigh Griffiths as a lone striker, for the first time in a game that mattered since the against-all-odds victory in Croatia in the summer of 2013, was just one more example of his anything-and-everything-is-worth-a-try team selection.

The presence of James Forrest and James Morrison in the line-up could not have been confidently predicted. Add to that Lee Wallace making his first Scotland start for six years and Craig Gordon playing in his first competitive international since 2009 and this was a team that had to somehow fuse instantly and fire the country to a win that would be a once-in-a-generation result.

It might sound plain daft on the back of a second consecutive 3-0 defeat but, in some ways, and despite the inevitable frailities that caused their downfall, Scotland did perform as a unit and did produce in flashes.

Chances for Grant Hanley – a free header – Griffths, and, with the score 1-0 early in the second half, from Robert Snodgrass and Forrest might have yielded goals.

Ultimately, though, there was a crushing ease with which England breached Gordon’s goal.

Gareth Southgate’s side did not play with any real fluency. They did not impress much beyond their three goals, yet, in the final analysis, they gave Scotland more of a going over than they even managed against lowly Malta at Wembley.

As a result, amid all the fruitless comebacks, it would now appear to be certain there is no way Strachan can come back and take charge of Scotland when their next international rolls around in March.

He, and Brown, will surely depart the scene once and for all, just as Scotland have effectively now departed from this World Cup qualifying campaign in any meaningful sense.

A new manager will be in charge for Slovenia’s Hampden’s visit in four months, given the chance to build for Euro 2020 qualifying campaign in September 2018.

Yes, folks, as a footballing nation we are now wishing away a year until there is any realistic opportunity to prevent Scotland’s absence from major finals extending beyond the 22-year mark.

A thought so utterly depressing and bleak there would appear to be very few ways to brighten the mood. How bad the situation can be painted might be summed up by this thought: listening to Leonard Cohen at his gloomiest would offer up light relief right now.

Yesterday, the death of Cohen was announced. A musical poet whose ruminations on mortality have few equals in popular music.

In his most recent work, released only last month, he mused with typical brutal beauty on the end being nigh.

In one song, that can be considered Cohen effectively foretelling his imminent demise, he proclaims ‘you want it darker we’ll kill the flame’.

The feeble flame of a Scotland managerial tenure, and that of a qualifying campaign, were extinguished at Wembley last night, but these ends have been foretold for a long time.