GORDON Strachan last night handed the credit for Scotland’s crucial Euro 2016 victory over Republic of Ireland to his coach Stuart McCall.
Shaun Maloney scored the only goal of a tempestuous contest at Celtic Park to allow the Scots to leapfrog their Irish rivals into third place in Group D, just three points behind leaders Poland who won 4-0 in Georgia earlier in the day.
The matchwinner came from an elaborate corner routine involving Maloney, Ikechi Anya and Scott Brown which Strachan revealed was devised on the training pitch by former Motherwell manager McCall.
“We are just fortunate Stuart McCall came away with that set play,” said the Scotland manager. “It was a Stuart McCall goal. It was a variation of one of his set play routines and it was always going to be that type.
“We can put on a set play but you also have to be able to finish like Shaun did. I have to say that our smaller guys like him, considering the height and power they were playing against, were very brave on the ball.
“I said before the game that one goal had decided all of the previous games in the group, apart from the ones involving Gibraltar. It has happened again. We did say set plays were going to be vital and it happened.
“As for a pure footballing spectacle, it wasn’t that great. But as a spectacle of two groups of players not wanting to give an inch, it was mesmerising.
“They all wanted to jump higher than each other, run quicker and battle harder. The fans made it an occasion. It was like one of those big heavyweight boxing matches.” Strachan remains determined to maintain a sense of perspective over just how signficant a victory it was for his team in a group he expects will go to the wire.
“I absolutely wouldn’t second guess the outcome of this group now,” he said. “People have been telling me since the Georgia game it is must win. They said it before Poland and this one. Every game seems to be a must win. I think most teams will be looking at it that way. But it doesn’t often work out like that. You don’t know when the big game is. This might have been the big game or it might have been a waste of time – you never know. There are lot of emotions chucked in there for me, every emotion possible. But the good thing is I can now go home, get to my bed and chill. That’s what I’ll do, go home and watch a bit of telly and fall asleep. I’m looking forward to that.”
Strachan felt his players coped admirably with the physical nature of the contest and was especially gratified by the performance of Charlie Mulgrew, a late replacement in central midfield for the ill James Morrison.
“Charlie was absolutely immense,” he said. “Normally we would come in here and say ‘what a game Scott Brown has had.’ But Charlie has actually taken the mantle tonight and ably backed up by the people round about him. I thought they were brave on and off the ball – our three behind the main strikers. They did very well. I am really pleased with Shaun, as I am with Steven Naismith, Ikechi Anya and others.
“When we’ve played, we’ve believed we can play football. Tonight it was a more physical duel. We dealt with that as well because the players trust each other. They know fine well if they’re not having a great night the guy next to him will help them out and I think that’s what happened tonight.”
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill felt his team deserved a share of the spoils and defended his surprise decision to leave record goalscorer Robbie Keane out of his starting line-up.
“I thought we would get a draw,” said O’Neill. “We were reasonably comfortable in the game when we conceded the goal. It was a frenetic match, stop-start, littered with fouls and like a derby in many respects.
“That’s us and Scotland on seven points each. Our own fate will depend on what happens in the Aviva Stadium. Four out of our next five games are at home. Germany are still the strongest team in the group, Poland are top. It’s going to be a tough group. I make decisions for the good of the team. Robbie accepted it. We were away from home and wanted to stretch the game. Shane Long can do that. It’s disappointing tonight but we are still very much in this group.”