It was a truly astonishing feat and really there wasn’t going to be much left for Scotland to do last night.
Only if we were to win 36-0, bringing that famous Scottish scoreline from history bang up to date, was the world going to sit up and take notice. But the national team don’t really do thrashings, double-figure drubbings or any kind of casual pulverisation. From Zaire in the 1974 World Cup onwards we’ve always known this.
But the towering modesty of the opposition encouraged the belief that calculators, or a kids’ abacus at the very least, might just be needed. Even Gordon Strachan, world-class at queering the pitch of a question, did not dispute beforehand that there would be no small amount of expectancy in the damp spring air. The fans, he said, would become fidgety in “three minutes max” if his players had not embarked on a goals haul to beat their modest best in a Euros qualifier, the 6-0 defeat of the Faroe Islands in 2006. Well, the third minute came and went with only one attempt, Steven Fletcher glancing a header from Andy Robertson’s cross, comfortably saved by Jamie Robba. The Tartan Army were showing no signs of jitters, though, helped by a sizeable squealing presence from school teams and boys’ clubs across the land. And Gibraltar seemed to be time-wasting already.
Challenged to think and score big, the fans might have requested they be allowed to pick a Scotland attack from the ages. How about Dalglish, Law, Gallacher (Hughie, not Kevin), Reilly and your choice from Cooke, Lorimer or Strachan? They could line up in the classic way, five forwards across the top line.
Back in the real world, we wondered if Strachan would break with his one-up habit. Steven Fletcher, the usual man, hadn’t scored of late but the boss had been gushing about him, reaching for the words “elegant” and “lovely”. Strachan called Jordan Rhodes “probably the best out-and-out goalscorer we’ve got” but he didn’t start the Blackburn Rovers man alongside Fletch as part of a two. Shades of his Celtic years when he made Derek Riordan top of the class for finishing but kept him on the bench.
But what was this? Only one central defender? A 1-7-2 formation? Studying the teamsheet beforehand we wondered if Strachan was even going for a 1-6-3. It was the equivalent of wearing stilettos for the night. And we wondered what Alex Miller, never so bold as a manager, would have made of it all as he watched through the showers.
That Fletcher header would be as good as the early exchanges would get for Scotland. For Gibraltar, however, the opening phase would be absolutely sensational. This is all relative, of course, but they won a corner! They had David Marshall scrambling when Joseph Chipolina’s cross was blown towards his near post! They did not entirely look like dumplings and diddies! But all of this was merely a prelude to the 17th minute and their first-ever goal in competitive football, a quick equaliser after Shaun Maloney’s penalty had put the Scots ahead. The historic strike was by Lee Casciaro, a polisman. It was a composed finish, mirroring his team’s general play. Scotland, in contrast had been ponderous. The new formation saw plenty of the ball but struggled to do anything decisive with it. Ikechi Anya had been the flailing last man as Casciaro struck. Further up the left beat he often found himself double-marked. But it was his cross that brought Fletcher his first international goal for six years, the striker slipping on the turf before straining to head home. It wasn’t elegant, it wasn’t lovely, but it was a goal at last.
Maloney’s second penalty settled the team down and Fletcher felt able to attempt to double his goal count with the most artful of left-foot flicks at the near post. Goals, when they come against Gibraltar, tend to arrive in clusters, and Naismith promptly added a fourth.
The fans, and especially the young ones, would have loved Scotland to double their tally in the second half, taking the team past the seven scored by Poland and the Republic of Ireland. But the Scots are not used to complete and utter domination of a football match and Maloney was particularly guilty of wasting ball. Strachan had introduced another central defender, Gordon Greer, which was another compliment to Gibraltar, as Brown overhit his passes and Fletcher underhit horribly in front of goal.
Rhodes made his entry though would have to wait for his first meaningful involvement as the game more and more took on the aspect of a friendly and an especially woozy one. First he shot wide. Then he crossed deftly for Fletcher to score his second with another header. As the match fizzled out, only one question remained: could Fletch become the first Scot to bag a hat-trick since Colin Stein against Cyprus in 1969? He hit a rasping right-footer which was well saved by Robba. Despite the scoreline the Gibraltar goalkeeper had played extremely well, underlining this by tipping over a Barry Bannen free-kick.
But Fletcher would not be denied, almost passing the ball into the net for his third. In the teeming rain he had broken his goal drought, also vanquishing the hex on dark blue hat-tricks that had endured for a strangely long time. Gibraltar’s lack of goals could scarcely be called a drought, given they only started playing meaningful football last year, but it might have gone on for long enough. Thankfully for them Scotland happened by. Strachan was generous in his praise of Gibraltar, saying they deserved all the plaudits from the evening.
After the wacky experimenting, the manager will presumably put the high heels away and revert back to his favoured 4-2-3-1. Yes, it was only Gibraltar, but a hat-trick’s still a hat-trick. Who’s Harry Kane anyway?
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS