An eventful afternoon in Paisley for Jason Cummings ended with the Hibs striker banishing a run of seven games without a goal and keeping Scotland Under-21s’ slender hopes of European Championship qualification alive.
The 20-year-old hadn’t netted since grabbing the winner for his club against Hearts six weeks previously, and the spotlight had been trained on him in the wake of an open-goal miss in the Championship defeat by Raith Rovers a week past Saturday.
It looked like his misfortune in front of goal was set to continue when he missed a first-half penalty while the young Scots trailed to their Northern Ireland counterparts. However, after substitute Oli McBurnie equalised for the hosts, Cummings got himself back on the goal trail with a couple of vital close-range finishes which kept Ricky Sbragia’s side in with an outside chance of making the finals in Poland next summer.
There were five players from the two Edinburgh clubs in the starting XI, with Hearts providing four of them. Jack Hamilton retained his place in goal after an excellent display in last Thursday’s defeat by France, while Jordan McGhee, John Souttar and Sam Nicholson also remained in the side. Cummings continued in attack, but Hibs colleague Liam Henderson dropped to the bench, where he was joined by Hearts right-back Liam Smith. Billy King, the Hearts winger currently on loan at Rangers, missed out after being laid low by a virus.
Scotland started strongly and threatened in the third minute when good work by Rangers winger Barrie McKay on the left set up Ryan Christie but the Celtic attacker’s powerful angled blast from 12 yards out was beaten away by Northern Ireland and Kilmarnock goalkeeper Conor Brennan.
At the other end, Souttar got in a vital block to take the sting out of Mikhail Kennedy’s effort from just inside the box before Hamilton parried it behind.
The visitors had gradually grown into the game and they took the lead in the 13th minute with a wretched goal from a Scottish perspective. Shay McCartan, the Accrington Stanley forward, curled in a free-kick from wide on the left and it eluded everyone before squirming past Hamilton and into the net.
The hosts were rattled but they almost levelled in the 19th minute when Cummings glanced a close-range header wide following a dangerous delivery from Swansea City left-back Stephen Kingsley.
Cummings looked desperate to get his name on the scoresheet and he threatened again with a half-volley from 25 yards out which was clutched by Brennan in the 29th minute. Two minutes later, the Easter Road striker earned himself the perfect chance to end his barren run when he won a penalty after Liam Donnelly handled in the box while trying to stop him bursting into the box from the left flank. Cummings immediately grabbed the ball and placed it on the spot, but his low left-footed strike was pushed behind by Brennan.
The Irish remained a threat and Hamilton had to be alert to block a low Michael Duffy shot from the edge of the box in the 34th minute. Nicholson looked lively before the break and the Hearts attacker teed up Cummings on the edge of the box, but the striker’s shot lacked conviction and ran the wrong side of Brennan’s left-hand post.
Three minutes before the interval, the Scots went desperately close to an equaliser. McKay’s free-kick from wide on the left found Craig Storie at the back post and the Aberdeen midfielder’s header was partially blocked by Brennan. Christie looked certain to bundle the loose ball over the line but Irish defender Cameron Dummigan somehow got back to clear the danger.
Two minutes into the second half, it was the turn of the visitors to be denied by a goal-line clearance when Gauld popped up at the back post to nod clear after McCartan’s dangerous inswinging delivery had caused panic in the home defence.
The Sporting Lisbon man set about trying to make himself more prominent at the other end and in the 51st minute he rasped a powerful strike just wide after being set up by McKay on the edge of the box. A minute later, Gauld went close again when his attempted lob over Brennan drifted agonisingly wide from the left of the penalty area. Cummings was sliding in desperately trying to convert at the far post, but the Hibs striker was unable to prevent his team-mate’s effort trundling out for a goal kick.
With the Scots in need of a goal, Sbragia sent on McBurnie in place of Nicholson in the 53rd minute. It was a substitution that would pay fairly swift dividends. After Christie saw a low snapshot from the edge of the box blocked by Brennan in the 55th minute, the Celtic attacker set up his side’s equaliser three minutes later. His inswinging ball from the right was latched on to by McBurnie and the 19-year-old Swansea City forward kept his cool before slotting a lovely finish past Brennan.
Then, in the 64th minute, came the moment Cummings had been craving for the past six weeks. After his own brilliant strike from 25 yards out had been parried by Brennan, Christie collected possession out on the right and drilled the ball back across goal. Cummings was waiting at the back post and gleefully slotted home from close range.
With the monkey off his back, the Hibs striker then doubled his tally when he met Kingsley’s low cross from the left at the back post and slotted in from a couple of yards out. Cummings, who will be back in Paisley when Hibs visit St Mirren this Saturday, received a standing ovation when he was replaced by team-mate Henderson with nine minutes left.
Scotland: Hamilton, Love, McGhee, Souttar, Kingsley, Storie, Gauld, McKay (Polworth 89), Christie, Nicholson (McBurnie 53), Cummings (Henderson 81). Unused subs: Henley, Hyam, Findlay, Smith, Polworth.
Northern Ireland: Brennan, Dummigan, Conlan, Donnelly, Johnson, Gorman, McLaughlin (Sendles-White 68), Maloney, Kennedy, McCartan (McDaid 83), Duffy (Cooper 78). Unused subs: Mitchell, Sharpe, McKnight, JP Donnelly.
Ref: C Pawson