Craig Gordon return a silver lining on dark night
IF YOU’D predicted Craig Gordon would not play again for Scotland for four years after being replaced by Cammy Bell against the Faroe Islands in November 2010, the cold night air at Pittodrie would be judged to have affected your thinking.
Offering some indication of how long ago this was, and how differently we viewed the Scottish national team, Garry Kenneth, now of Carnoustie Panmure, played that evening in Aberdeen. For some time it was feared that playing at a lower level would be Gordon’s fate, if he came back to competitive action at all. International football appeared to be a step too far.
But he returned last night in a No 12 lime green Scotland jersey. While the circumstances were not ideal – he was picking the ball out of the net within two minutes after replacing David Marshall, when Wayne Rooney headed in England’s second – even this was not enough to ruin such a significant moment, nor was the England striker’s second of the night, in the dying minutes.
It might only have been cap No 41 but it must have felt like a hundred to Gordon, who fleetingly wondered whether his team-mates might succeed in making it feel extra special when Andrew Robertson raised hopes of a comeback with a goal after 83 minutes.
Scotland once relished being able to pick Britain’s costliest goalkeeper. While there may have been many things wrong with the Craig Levein-era Scotland, all seemed rosy between the sticks, where Gordon was not even assured of a starting berth due to the form of Allan McGregor. After appearing against the Faroes, Gordon returned to Premier League duty with Sunderland, playing in a 2-2 draw with Everton (Danny Welbeck, who started for England last night, scored twice for Sunderland, incidentally).
He played another 12 times for Sunderland that season and then? Well, not much really. Never mind Scotland, he barely played at all until the comeback at Celtic this season, struck down by a rare patella tendon injury (the same affliction that finished former England midfielder Owen Hargreaves’ career).
So an international return last night on an otherwise bleak evening for Scotland provided some joy for manager Gordon Strachan, who was urged to “cheer up” throughout by the gloating English fans.
Their already low opinion of Scotland as a football force did not, sadly, require to be revised. Strachan’s principal experiment in blooding Chris Martin from the start cannot be considered to have gone well; the striker from the Championship looked below the standard required, faced by an exclusively Premier League rearguard.
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In terms of his international goals per game ratio, Martin’s was as good as anyone else’s on the pitch yesterday, even Rooney – now on 46 goals in 101 caps. Martin has two in four games – for England Under-19s.
Prior to last night the striker had appeared three times as substitute for Scotland, most recently on Friday night when he was pitched into a frenetic storm against Republic of Ireland and looked slightly shell-shocked by the experience. Don’t worry Chris, here’s a game against England to help you get into the stride. Err, cheers gaffer.
If anything, the intensity was even greater last night, though at least Martin had the chance to play himself into the game from the start. He might also have felt some relief that his every touch (there were only 12 in total, according to the official stats) was not booed by the English support for the perceived act of treachery in swapping sides. The cruel truth might be that they simply didn’t know the Derby County striker, and were not aware of his backstory.
There was, though, a photograph of Martin included in the match programme in which he is wearing an England shirt in one of his four Under-19 appearances, when he scored those international two goals. Perhaps the English supporters had formed the opinion that he wasn’t to be messed with.
He is certainly not someone you would want to meet on a dark night in the east end of Glasgow, as Chris Smalling and fellow centre-half Gary Cahill feared finding out. Although somewhat squatter in shape, he is a throwback to physical Scottish No 9s of old such as Joe Jordan and Andy Gray.
Strachan’s intention was for Martin to hold the ball up and then feed the likes of Steven Naismith and Shaun Maloney. Martin wanted more time than he was given, a reflection, perhaps, of his current station in the English Championship.
Martin was involved in some tough exchanges in the opening minutes as both teams started at the pace of a cup-tie. Tackles flew in. He continued to battle but there was little for him to feast on in terms of scoring opportunities. At least against Ireland he had been given a sight of goal.
According to Strachan, he had shown great promise in training. The manager noted that Darren Fletcher has become a particular fan of his selfless style, with Steve McClaren, the former England manager whose reign was terminated after a defeat by Croatia seven years ago on Friday, praised by Martin for developing him in the role of a lone striker.
While Darren Fletcher only entered the fray at half-time, Martin was handed a precious start. Against England, the county of his birth. With his father Gerry, who grew up in the east end of Glasgow, sitting in the stand.
The ingredients were there for one of the great Scottish stories. Regrettably, there was not the same zip about the team’s play as Friday night. Martin struggled and was one of three players Strachan chose to replace at half-time. In common with much of what occurred last night, it was a forgettable first start for the striker, who suffered for a lack of quality in comparison to his opponents. But he was certainly not alone in this.
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