Since 1991, only England have managed to do what Scotland did, which is leave the Croatian capital with the prize of three points.
It felt historic, certainly. And, for Gordon Strachan, it represented lift-off, six months after succeeding Craig Levein. He knew that a heavy defeat, as had been forecast, would have eroded some more of the goodwill that greeted his appointment, as well as sapping yet more confidence from the squad of players, many of whom had called-off, hardly attracted by the thought of further involvement in the doomed enterprise that is the country’s current qualifying campaign.
Many interpreted Scotland’s agreement to play this fixture in June as meaning it was being written-off, in the hope that sufficient points would be gained elsewhere in order to ensure qualification. Instead, it has turned out to contain reinvigorating properties, although this wasn’t obvious from Strachan’s demeanour afterwards. He looked like a man who had been put through the wringer, every bit as much as those players who left the pitch drenched with sweat, their dark blue jerseys made to look black from the exertions of it all.
The manager admitted he felt “drained” afterwards, and yet, with admirable stamina, he drove back to his Midlands home after the squad landed in Glasgow, at just before 3am on Saturday. A few days ago, Scotland were perceived to be on the road to nowhere. Now? Now there is some direction, the glimpse of a signpost. It is directing the team to Wembley first of all, and, perhaps, towards better times.
The journey to London for the August friendly against England is one Scotland can make while feeling a whole lot better about themselves. This was something Strachan pointed out on Friday evening, as we huddled around him with our dictaphones, amid the bustle that is the aftermath of an international football match. For once, we were not being obliged to begin another inquest.
The main post-match press conference that had been hastily brought to an end by the manager, who, following some interjections by a burly Croatian journalist, was moved to ask for some calm. Just let us enjoy it, Strachan protested. “It’s not often we get a result like this,” he pointed out, truthfully. Friday night was only the second time since the ranking system came into operation that Scotland have beaten a team in the top four places. On that memorable night back in 2007 when France, who the previous year had reached the World Cup final, fell to James McFadden’s glorious strike, they were, perhaps surprisingly, ranked only fourth in the world, as Croatia are now.
Scotland defeated sixth place Germany 1-0 in Bremen in April 1999, 11th place England at Wembley in November of that same year. Berti Vogts’ Scotland side, meanwhile, beat sixth place Holland in the first leg of the Euro 2004 play-off in November 2003. Scotland have played 25 qualifying matches since the win in Paris and never once beaten a team higher than them. Remarkably, the victory over Croatia is the first since competitive win since against Liechtenstein, in late 2011. If Scotland did anything at all on Friday, they restored some pride. It was reassuring to watch James Morrison, Shaun Maloney and James McArthur prove that they can do for Scotland what we see from them on a weekly basis, when watching Match of the Day.
Strachan mentioned that Snodgrass and McArthur, in particular, had been disheartened by the defeat to Wales in March, where the latter, the goalscoring hero on Friday, was sent off. He hoped that the victory means that there will be a “spring in their step” come the trip to Wembley, which is Scotland’s next appointment. The worth of the win over Croatia cannot be measured in terms of boosting qualification hopes, sadly. But in terms of lifting morale, its worth is significant indeed. Suddenly, players will want to turn up for the next game, suddenly the prospect of taking on England is not such a fearful one. When you have already beaten the team ranked No 4 in the world on their own patch, why blanche at the thought of locking horns with the team ranked at a lowly five?
Thereafter, Strachan’s side will re-engage with competitive matches – because the game with England won’t be competitive, right? – and aim to finish as high possible in the group. Third place is now a possibility.
Of course, the scenario where they finish bottom remains a realistic one, but Scotland can at least approach the three remaining games in the group, against Belgium, Croatia and Macedonia, with a renewed optimism, while having had the dread of dropping into pot five removed, for the time being. Now Scotland can begin to build. In Grant Hanley and Russell Martin, Strachan has found a centre-back pairing that looks worth his while developing. No one is going to mistake them for Alex McLeish and Willie Miller, but their resolute display in Zagreb, after an initially shaky start, was one of the most encouraging aspects of the performance, as was Alan Hutton’s display at right back. It was his finest display since the night he made such an impression against Italy at Hampden Park, in 2007.
Before Strachan left the airport to begin his long drive home, he spoke to each player by the baggage carousel, thanking them for their efforts. They had only met up at the weekend, and yet, in a few days, Strachan had managed bring organisation and unity to a disparate group of players who had never played together as a team before, and may never play together again.
He had worked on two systems. One was specifically designed to deal with Croatia, he explained, and the other was for the future. He was prepared to switch to plan B had the first formation proved ineffective, but from the opening moments, Scotland looked like a team who were comfortable with what they had been asked to do. Keep the ball, stressed Strachan. And they did, more successfully than any other time in recent memory. Be brave, he urged. And they were. The sight of Leigh Griffiths challenging his man mountain of a marker, the 6ft 5in Dinamo Zagreb defender Gordon Schildenfeld, was one to savour, since it spoke volumes for the striker’s commitment, and desire to put his shoulder to the wheel.
It proved what can be done, even when the odds are so firmly stacked against you. This is the valuable lesson that can be taken from a memorable night in Zagreb.