Spring is in the air and the green shoots of recovery were glimpsed at Hampden Park last night.
Scotland prevailed on an evening when magenta-streaked skies greeted those few fans who signed up for the torment guaranteed by a game everyone, including manager Gordon Strachan, agreed was a must-win.
Russia was beginning to feel like a pipe dream. Perhaps it still is. But Scotland, and specifically unlikely hero Chris Martin, have breathed some life into a qualifying campaign that, with the minutes ticking down last night, looked beyond repair.
Hampden’s future, as well as Strachan’s, seemed set for fierce debate. Half-full, the ground was nothing like the cauldron of old while the pitch cut up badly, again.
Scotland seemed set to rue missed chances, particularly from Leigh Griffiths in the first half. Ikechi Anya, Strachan’s second last throw of the dice, spurned a huge opportunity with 15 minutes left, moments after coming on.
But it was Strachan’s last throw of the dice that changed everything. It’s possible to wonder whether some Scotland fans deserve to enjoy what Martin provided.
A chorus of boos greeted his arrival on to the pitch when he replaced James Morrison with ten minutes left. But Martin, whose performance against Canada last midweek had clearly extinguished the patience of many Scotland supporters, simply stuck out his chest and posted one of the bravest cameos seen at Hampden.
The on-loan Fulham striker struck with two minutes left of normal time, taking in man of the match Stuart Armstrong’s astute lay-off before turning to shoot into the far corner of Jan Oblak’s goal, where the ball hit the post before crossing the line. The stadium was far from full but the roar was shot through with relief as well as the elated knowledge that, with England due to arrive next on 10 June, Scotland’s flame is flickering once more.
Strachan, pictured, deserved to feel the righteous surge of vindication in his breast. His managerial obituaries were already being written when Martin, in whom Strachan has retained such faith, saved his skin and meant Griffiths, one of half a dozen Celtic players who started last night, could afford a wry smile at the end.
The Celtic connection was to the fore after 16 minutes when James Forrest crossed for Griffiths, who sent his header from the edge of the six-yard box wide. To be fair to the striker, who has conceded he has been trying too hard to score his first goal for his country, his club-mate’s cross was a shade behind him.
But he knows there were no mitigating factors when he side-footed against the bar from four yards following Robert Snodgrass’s charge down the left, with his lofted cross delivered to perfection.
Griffiths buried his head in the turf on this, what proved his 12th goalless cap for Scotland. Is he ever going to score for Scotland?
But he hasn’t got where he has by being easily cowed. He picked himself up and had every right to curse misfortune when rifling a shot against the post after 36 minutes.
Again it was a passage of play that might have been perfected on the playing fields at Lennoxtown, the Celtic training headquarters.
The lively Armstrong darted down the right before cutting the ball back for Griffiths, who was running in at speed. Considering his miss just a couple of minutes beforehand would have been preying on his mind, he made a perfect connection on a clearly bobbly pitch.
But again he was denied by the goal-frame, this time an upright.
Hearteningly for Strachan, Scotland were creating chances. Griffiths was at least getting into scoring positions but Strachan was robbed of the striker’s services just after half-time.
Griffiths failed to shake off an injury sustained in a collision with Oblak – the keeper stuck his knee into the forward’s back – at the end of the first half and was replaced by Steven Naismith.
Strange though it is to say about someone toiling to score his first international goal, Scotland lost something when Griffiths departed.
Strachan had described his dilemma over which of his five strikers to pick as the biggest decision he’s made to date as Scotland manager.
But perhaps the one that threatened to truly define his term in charge was playing Kieran Tierney, a particularly left-footed left-back, at right-back. Andrew Robertson occupied the left-back slot.
Strachan had opted not to experiment this interesting tactical ploy against Canada, perhaps hoping to maximise the element of surprise.
With Scotland on the front foot at the start, it was difficult to judge the success of such a bold decision. Indeed, Tierney first caught the eye in an offensive position after good work from Armstrong and Forrest on the right. Ironically Tierney’s shooting chance fell for him on his preferred left foot but while he didn’t get the connection he wanted he was also foiled by a deflection, which sent the ball past the post.
Slovenia, too, created chances and grew stronger as the game wore on. Craig Gordon stood up well to Raman Bezjak’s effort at his near post. But they had nothing like as many decent openings as Scotland. Russell Martin saw a header rightly chopped off for pushing while Morrison’s header was cleared off the line by Valter Birsa.
After such a bright first half, Scotland appeared to be accepting their seeming fate with a whimper in the second half. But Martin and Armstrong combined to mean Strachan can sit down this morning and begin plotting his preparations for England, hope, albeit slim, restored.