A goal difference return of minus one from two games against Kazakhstan and San Marino, combined world ranking 328, is certainly not what was predicted this time last week when Scotland arrived in central Asia for a double header that was expected to yield six points and goals aplenty.
McLeish’s job prospects remain shaky. He knows that. He is aware his critics wanted far more than a goal in each half from last night’s game. In addition, another scoreline served to damn him: Kazakhstan 0 Russia 4. Rather than provide relief, the international interlude signals danger to his hopes of remaining in his position. Scotland are not in action again until June.
McLeish can make the reasonable claim in his defence that Scotland secured their standard result when playing in San Marino. As far back as 1991, when players as talented as Gordon Strachan and Gary McAlliser were pulling the strings in midfield, Scotland left with a 2-0 win, results replicated in 1995 and 2000.
In nearly 20 years it’s reasonable to expect San Marino have improved while it’s obvious Scotland have regressed. But the Sammarinese are still the last ranked team in the world. Scotland are probably flattered by their ranking of 40 but hopes of a multi-goal victory, particularly having gone ahead so early, did not seem like an absurd demand.
McLeish’s team-sheet could be viewed as him trolling his detractors. He dropped James Forrest, admittedly poor against Kazakhstan but a hat-trick hero in his last but one appearance for Scotland. He again overlooked Scott McTominay’s claim for a starting spot, though he may have been suffering the after-effects of a stomach bug that saw him rush off the park at the final whistle against Kazakhstan.
Perhaps most controversially of all, McLeish handed the Scotland No 9 role to Callum Paterson, pictured. Now, the fabled properties of said shirt have dimmed somewhat since the days of Joe Jordan. But it’s still tempting to think it means something, that there is still some status attached to it.
Former Welsh international forward Nathan Blake has already claimed that Paterson playing up front for Cardiff City is an insult to the club’s other strikers. While it was an observation intended to say more about them than Paterson, it gets to the nub of the problem with the former Hearts right-back, the position the player himself considers his natural one. Paterson is nothing more than an auxiliary striker, who hasn’t scored a goal since the end of last year.
“Callum Paterson is not is a centre-forward. No, no, no, no. And no again,” wrote Blake in a column. “The regular strikers on Cardiff’s books need to be taking a hard look at themselves.”
Blake’s assessment from earlier this season seems relevant when contemplating the same player being pushed into service at No 9 by his country.
What did it say about forwards Oli McBurnie, Marc McNulty, Oli Burke and Forrest? Perhaps only the first two are out-and-out and strikers. But they are not international class strikers. Not yet at least. McNulty proved that when he came on. It’s why McLeish felt compelled to turn to Paterson, who is at least performing this role in the English Premier League, whether by default or otherwise, and doing pretty well.
It summed up how things are for McLeish at present that the Player Not Allowed To Play On Astroturf injured himself playing on…Grass. Not that things were necessarily going swimmingly in any case. Paterson was not getting on the end of things the way McLeish envisaged. San Marino were proving stuffy and succeeded in crowding him out. It took just four minutes for the other Astroturf refusenik to create the first goal. This was a source of intense relief and perhaps also frustration for McLeish. Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser would likely have been a first-choice against Kazakhstan if not for some fretting finance figure at the English club with a responsibility for purchasing insurance policies. Fraser’s swung-in cross was cushioned into the net by Kenny McLean’s head. It was a well-worked goal for a team supposed to be suffering a crisis in confidence but then both of those involved were spared the anguish of the Astana Arena.
After 31 minutes, the length of time in which Cyprus scored four times against San Marino on Thursday, Scotland were just one in front. More disturbingly, they’d almost let San Marino, who have now lost 90 of their last 91 qualifiers, equalise. Aldolfo Hirsch shot into the side-netting after the Scottish defence again proved vulnerable to a clever angled pass.
Every pundit asked had mentioned the importance of an early goal. Scotland got it and then, well, nothing really. Stuart Armstrong was thwarted by a double save after Paterson did what he was there to do and nodded down a long ball forward, which Johnny Russell neatly touched on to the Southampton midfielder.
It was hoped Scotland might start imposing themselves towards the end, when the part-timers would be tiring. Russell’s goal, while welcome and again well-constructed, did little to alter the mood in the stands and at home, where McLeish will feel – possibly correctly – that a lot of people were sitting willing him to fail.
It won’t have passed their attention that San Marino were pushing for an equaliser in what were the latter stages of the game before Scotland broke away and scored. Three points and two goals in the credit column in what is the greatest gimme in international football does not translate into salvation for McLeish.