Gordon Strachan does a great impression of the pessimistic attitude that can reign supreme in Scotland, his gently mocking humour evident on the day he pointed out the window to brilliant sunshine and gorgeous blue skies and said: “It’ll never last, you know.”
Whether the feelgood from last night can be maintained is a moot point, but you’d need to be a total misery not to stop for a second and bask in the warmth of a wonderful victory.
All sorts of caveats can be applied if you wish to apply them. Croatia had already qualified for the play-offs (barring a mathematical miracle) and were not exactly at fever pitch as a consequence. They had many of their top men on the field but most, if not all of them, were subdued. Luka Modric started, but hardly impressed. He was on a booking. Didn’t want to the miss the first leg of the play-offs. Took it handy. Mario Mandzukic the same. Big games coming up for these lads. No need to go crazy here, with nothing at stake.
You could look at it that way, but it would be a pretty joyless view. For Scotland were excellent. This was no backs-to-the-wall job, no seat-of-their-pants number. Apart from a few minutes at the beginning and a couple of moments at the end, it was the Scots who set the tempo, who created the chances, who played the kind of football we had expected Croatia to play.
We could torment ourselves with the thought of what might had been had the SFA realised earlier that Craig Levein did not have the managerial wit to spark the mini-renaissance that Strachan is delivering. That would be an exercise in national self-flagellation. If only Strachan had been there from the start of this campaign. The comfort is that he will be there at the start of the next one – and there is hope. There is most definitely hope.
Doing the double over Croatia would be a supreme achievement at any time, but doing it when the game in this country is at its lowest ebb is a thunderous endorsement of the Strachan era. Last night, we saw players being liberated from the doubt that has besieged them for years. This was a group who were told they were good enough and who clearly believed it as opposed to previously when they said they had faith but then played like they had not.
Two goals and a clean sheet. Two goals and a clean sheet and some football that was slick and dangerous. Hugely encouraging performances in many parts of the field. Charlie Mulgrew, Steven Naismith, Robert Snodgrass, Ikechi Anya, James Morrison, Scott Brown, Barry Bannan. There is a such a fatalistic attitude to the quality of footballer available to Scotland but here were guys who looked alive with confidence and who caused Croatia an amount of bother.
Mulgrew is nobody’s idea of a raconteur, but his was a performance that spoke volumes for his versatility and understated class. We’ll remember the delicious and precise delivery for the opening goal, the cross that could not have been more accurate had Snodgrass drawn him a big target in the air above Dejan Lovren’s head while giving the Celtic man a dozen chances to hit it. On the move, Mulgrew found the bullseye at the first attempt.
But what Mulgrew did before he ever wrapped his left foot around the ball and put it on a plate for Snodgrass was emblematic of him as a footballer. It was Mulgrew who won possession for Scotland in the first place and Mulgrew who laid it off to the excellent Naismith. It was Mulgrew who thought like a full-back – instead of the central midfielder that he has been most recently or the centre-half that he can be – and bombed down the wing on to Naismith’s shoulder, calling out to his team-mate for the ball before producing the most sumptuous end product. It was Snodgrass’ goal, a product of his own great determination to get in the box and out-compete a bigger man to get his head on the ball. But in many ways it was Mulgrew’s goal. Like so often, another player got the glory, but the Celtic player’s role in it was a delight.
Strachan’s tactical tweaks were a risk and a revelation all at once. Safety first is a policy that has served him pretty well up to this point in his brief time in charge, the defensive midfield buffers of Mulgrew and Brown being central to the bits of success he has had in the job, in Croatia and Macedonia. It would have been easy to repeat the formation here. When you’re up against one of the finest creative players in Modric then it made perfect sense to pair the Celtic men together again. If it wasn’t broken, why try and fix it? This is where Strachan earned his corn. Sure, maybe he played Mulgrew at left-back out of necessity (Steven Hammell was the only full-back left standing) but still the Scotland manager managed to pull off his twin ambitions of making Scotland more dangerous going forward while at the same time keeping them solid when Croatia attempted to do likewise. It took the visitors 54 minutes to get a shot on target and even then it was a modest effort from Modric that Allan McGregor gobbled up with ease.
They had another moment soon after when Eduardo, on a substitute, ghosted past Grant Hanley and rounded McGregror before hitting his shot into the side netting from a tight angle. There wasn’t a lot else from the Croatians. Their supporters lit up flares and filled their end of Hampden with smoke; a clever tactic if they didn’t want to see how easily Scotland were coping with their team. Alas, for the Croatians, their vision had cleared by the time the second goal arrived. Anya and his marker, Domagoj Vida of Dynamo Kiev, had had a terrific tussle all evening, the Watford man refusing to be cowed by Vida’s physicality. He was a bundle of pace and energy and his effervescence eventually got too much for the Croatian, who conceded the penalty from which Scotland eventually scored.
Given how alert he looked all night, it was no surprise that when Bannan’s spot-kick was beaten away by Stipe Pletikosa it was Naismith who reacted first, steaming in ahead of all others to score and then sprinting away to celebrate with a Hampden that hasn’t been this optimistic in far too long. The campaign is over, then. It’s been rougher than rough for the most part, but Strachan has done what many hoped he would and what few dared to believe he could. He has restored optimism where before there was only dread.