YOU know you’re getting old when Scott Brown, the eternal daft laddie of Scottish football and seemingly still the one most likely to charter the Jinky Johnstone Memorial Rowing Boat, acknowledges that time is running out if he’s going to achieve all his ambitions.
Brown wants the national team to get to the finals of a major tournament. At 29, he feels he’s not going to have many more chances; indeed that this squad, with its touchy-feely togetherness but also its toughness, represents his best chance.
He didn’t hang about last night, springing the attack which produced the first Scottish corner and a few seconds later committing the first foul of the match. Classic Broony. Actually, Brown’s first contribution was to lead out the team. Gordon Strachan decided to make him captain, leaving out Darren Fletcher. This had been anticipated but wasn’t an absolute certainty. There were some cautionary words in the morning about not picking players out of sentiment, that this would be a sign of weak management. But Strachan went with Brown and and James Morrison as a platform for the challenge of Georgia, demonstrating toughness of his own.
If achieving an invitation to a major football tournament for the first time since 1998 can be counted as history-making – and this is Scotland so the question is academic – then Strachan’s team might have pondered what could be learned from the recent past.
Since the glorious failure of the 2008 Euros campaign there had been a sweltering-then-perishing away double-header to kick off the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, the Scots wilting in Skopje. There had been the strikerless farrago in Prague which undid our chances for Euro 2012. Then, thinking we might have a better chance beginning with a Hampden one-two for the dream-ticket to Brazil, there had been the stodgy, dreary and ultimately fatal draws against Serbia and Macedonia.
If we were always going to lose to Germany five weeks ago then this was the real, serious, win-or-tea’s-oot start to the campaign, Gordon Strachan’s first where victory was a must.
A less cloudy pre-match issue had been the front of the team. Strachan was bound to go with two strikers, wasn’t he? Yes, the two Stevens, Fletcher and Naismith. Cleverness and gutsiness, artful movement and run-all-night. Strachan, pictured right, wanted his team to ride the wave of a notable sporting year, summon the spirit of our Commonwealth Games heroes. Naismith as usual looked well up for a 5,000 metres, a 10,000 and if required a steeplechase. An early lung-burster from him roused the crowd while Fletcher’s first involvement in the opening seconds was to classily run his studs over the ball.
The start was brisk and bright, with Scotland getting plenty of opportunity to play themselves into the match, the Georgians with no wins on the road in 19 sitting back and inviting their hosts on to them. Alan Hutton, back at Ibrox like Naismith, luxuriated in the space afforded him. Shaun Maloney, another positive selection, linked well with the full-back without either being able to find a path to goal. Over on the other wing Andrew Robertson stood in splendid isolation, hand up, hoping for the ball. The crowd wanted him involved. “Spread it, spread it,” was the cry. His galloping displays on the left for Hull City on Match of the Day had become a Saturday night TV fixture. In the flesh on this Saturday night he looked less of a boy, more of a man. The fans got their wish just before the half-hour mark when the ex-Dundee United player had the chance to fire in a low cross and Fletcher narrowly missed getting on the end.
There was better to come just a few minutes later. A high one this time, with a lovely arc and pace to it. Giorgi Loria in the Georgia goal, who’d been punching everything, right-hooked this one a decent distance but Maloney fired it straight back, the keeper palming the shot on to Akaki Khubutia who deflected it into the net.
Hutton wasn’t to be outdone. As he horsed up the right he persuaded us that sometimes there’s nothing bonnier than a scary skinhead on the rampage. One run evoked the doomed 2008 campaign when he terrified Italy. The ball was cleared to the edge of the box and Brown sizzled a shot just wide.
Then it was back to Robertson’s wing. Another swooping ball, Fletcher heading narrowly over. The next time Hutton went for a saunter Robertson crossed to cover for him. At the interval Strachan would have been pleased with the involvement of his full-backs, less so the final passes and the wild shooting with Maloney, unable to call on any more in-offs, the chief culprit.
The crowd – probably just about big enough to ease SFA collywobbles after criticism of high ticket prices – had been hoping for Ibrox inspiration, a top-skill cameo like those of previous internationals at the venue, such as the Duncan Ferguson bicycle kick (1993 vs Germany) or the furthest-travelled pass involving a dummy, such as when Darren Ferguson obliged for John McGinlay (1996 vs Sweden).
There was little need for the latter. Georgia in the second half were still allowing Scotland time and space and it was good to see Ikechi Anya more prominent than he’d been before but still the final ball needed some finessing. Another Hutton surge set up Naismith but his attempt to find Fletcher in the box was overhit. Georgia, ranked 81 places below Scotland who are currently 29th, had shown nothing. Their manager Temuri Ketsbaia trudged around his technical area morosely and his players took their lead from him. Ketsbaia introduced Tornike Okriashvili, scorer of a spectacular goal in the defeat by the Republic of Ireland, but to little effect. Perhaps the player was cowering from the pre-match threat by Alex McLeish, his manager at Racing Genk: “If he scores I’ll batter him.”
If Anya was more involved than in the first period – and Fletcher was still stud-rolling to cunning effect and Naismith was still willing and Maloney was starting to struggle – then Robertson was less involved although he got back to make a crucial block as Georgia suggested they rather fancied pinching a draw after all. They came even closer in the 80th minute when another substitute, Irakli Dzaria, shot wide from a good position.
Scotland were not used to this. Bountiful ball, loads of everything. The crowd – who did their best not to get too edgy – longed for a second goal to make the game safe. Lovely if Fletcher’s terrific back-heel had produced it – the match’s best piece of skill, this – but Anya skewed his shot in the manner of many last night. Back down the pitch, Broony aged a bit more. And wondered and hoped and dared to dream…