As ENGLAND’S multi-million pound players came and went, one box office name replacing another, the temptation was to look solely on this defeat as gallant in the face of the Wembley galacticos or its golden generation or whatever they’re calling themselves in the rarefied air of lalaland these days.
A 3-2 loss away to a clearly superior team with players plucked from the finest corners of the Premier League? Not bad. Not bad at all. Much to be enthused about. Plenty to build on. A good night. Reasonable, at worst.
Yes, yes, yes. All true. Yet if there is no strong feeling of disappointment to accompany the encouragement, Scotland needs to tweak its mindset. England were better, no question. But Scotland had them rattled, had them looking ordinary for great chunks of this absorbing friendly. They lost, not because they were carved up or to a piece of brilliance. They lost because of something they should have been able to avoid. Two penalty-box headers won this for England. Nice crosses, nice finishes, but soft, oh so soft. Progress, yes. But regret? Absolutely.
What was obvious – and heartening – was that Scotland took with them the confidence of victory in Croatia, not for one moment being cowed by the marquee names in white. Though they won, this England team is a mirage, a collection of individuals whose merit is vastly over-stated, whose technical deficiencies are masked at club level by the continentals and South Americans in their midst. At least Scotland know what they’re about. They’re aware of their weakness and they are clearly working hard to plug the holes, most notably at the centre of the defence.
England still carry with them the confidence of ignorance. They think they are a fine side, a contender for the game’s biggest prizes. The facts tell us that they were nowhere near as good as they think they are.
Those weaknesses – as illustrated by Steven Gerrard’s ponderous and lamentably ineffective use of the ball in the heart of the midfield – get exposed at international level. They don’t have a Suarez or a Mata or a Van Persie to paper over the cracks when they concede possession or allow soft goals. They don’t have Hazard to render all those misplaced passes meaningless by scoring or assisting or both.
England had class last night, but it was only seen in flashes. In fairness to them, they had a doggedness, too, and it was just about enough to get them over the line. But quality? When Jack Wilshere got on the ball in the first half there was fluency and danger. When Tom Cleverley got engaged with the game, his vision was obvious. When the ball went wide to Theo Walcott then the terror on Steven Whittaker’s face was clear. But it didn’t happen enough often and Scotland deserve plaudits for making sure of it.
There was bite galore but there was also ambition and we saw something that was encouraging. Strachan did not just send his team out like mad dogs in a meat house, he sent them out believing they were good enough to achieve something. Why wouldn’t they? What was there to be scared of exactly? This was a competitive match in all but name. Competitive for the Scots for sure. England’s record in competitive games of late is nothing to strike fear into any player worth his salt.
They have played six matches in World Cup qualifying and have only beaten San Marino and Moldova. In three games against Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine they have three draws and three sets of reviews that Roy Hodgson would have read between the cracks in his fingers. They have been described in these games as lacklustre and labouring and that’s the polite stuff. The more edgy reports painted them as mangy
mongrels that were painful to behold as they treated the football as if it were an alien object. The 1-1 draw against Montenegro was described as a “horrible night” with Hodgson’s lack of action being derided as “excruciating”.
The important thing for Scotland was to turn up without an inferiority complex – and they did. They just didn’t have the concentration to see it through. They switched off and Welbeck and Ricky Lambert made them pay. Basic goals that put England on the front foot and utterly transformed the game.
There was a lot of good in this for Scotland, though. Early on, before a late deluge of possession and chances for England, they carried with them some of the brio of their manager in his heyday and some of the aggression of their assistant manager, when Mark McGhee was a colossus of Pittodrie. Quite frankly, whenever Grant Hanley and Russell Martin committed themselves to a challenge on Welbeck and Wayne Rooney, their gusto would have had David Moyes (or Arsene Wenger if you believe the latest in the Rooney saga) looking on aghast.
Scotland’s opener was an example of one of the things that ails this England team and keeps it a mile away from the elite in world football. Poor defending at a set-piece is a stock in trade for England. Slapstick goalkeeping is becoming an increasing part of Joe Hart’s make-up, too. James Morrison had the gumption to try his luck and what dividends it paid.
A dream start to the first half which was quickly cancelled out when Scotland were, alas, down to ten men momentarily. A dream start to the second half, too, and again Scotland’s momentum was checked quickly. Kenny Miller’s goal was a joy. Gary Cahill was sold down the swanee by Miller’s wonderful movement, a shimmy that the Chelsea defender bought and will take an age to live down, then topped with a thumping finish past Hart. A goal of the highest class, no question.
It should have been the goal to decide the game, a strike worthy to win a match of this magnitude, but it wasn’t to be. The set-piece did for Scotland. Simple. No Rooney brilliance. No Walcott wizardry. Just two easy – too easy – headers. Maddening.
Afterwards, speaking on STV, Terry Butcher said that England got out of jail. Maybe. Certainly, Scotland allowed them to escape. Strachan will have been encouraged by many of the things he saw from his team last night – the energy, the craft of Shaun Maloney, the fight – but the ease of those last two England goals will keep him awake a while. What might have been. And, presumably, years upon years to wait for another chance.