Ikechi Anya sparked Scotland’s renaissance

Shaun Maloney is out of shot as his goal nestles in the net but Steven Naismith and Steven Fletcher celebrate. Picture: Getty
Shaun Maloney is out of shot as his goal nestles in the net but Steven Naismith and Steven Fletcher celebrate. Picture: Getty
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THE adverts around the pitch flashed up reminders that tickets are already available for the Euro 2016 finals. In this group of all groups, no-one is hedging their bets. But Scotland are now well-placed to reap the rewards from a campaign in which they have proved resourceful in the extreme.

Housed in the “greenhouse” end at the Aviva stadium, the Scottish fans feared seeing seven months’ careful cultivation of hopes wilt in a single evening in Dublin. The glass roof above them was in danger of shattering from shrieks of agony. And that was out on the pitch, where Scotland were being pounded by an Irish side well aware of the need to collect a victory, no matter how it was done.

‘Though his shot was helped into the net by John O’Shea’s bum, it was Maloney’s goal’

Never mind horticultural, this was agricultural. Ireland were brutal. Brutal in targeting Craig Forsyth, the internationally inexperienced left-back whom Gordon Strachan elected to play before Steven Whittaker or Andy Robertson. Brutal in their implementation of a game-plan designed, it appeared, to rough up Scotland.

Fortunately for Scotland, they were also brutal in their attempt to close out a victory that would have consigned the visitors to the role of outsiders in Group D.

Strachan asked for one last great effort from his players, who can now nurse their bruises on the beach at Torremolinos, Marbs or wherever is the current “in vogue” place for footballers-at-rest. The referee, Nicola Rizzoli, had apparently been in charge at the World Cup final in Rio last year.

But it was easy to question whether it was same gentleman officiating at last night’s less cultured affair in Dublin. Somehow Ireland finished with 11 men on the park. Somehow, after a terribly sticky opening half when they fell behind to a goal that looked a yard offside, a much-changed Scotland rescued a point and, perhaps, could have pilfered a victory.

Strachan had already provided the clue that “four or five players will be disappointed” in a pre-match briefing. Among this group was Ikechi Anya, such a mainstay of Strachan teams since breaking into the squad. Also included in this disappointed raft of players was Andy Robertson.

Another personnel hint offered by Strachan in the days prior to the game was when he made a surprising allusion to rugby when discussing the physical contrast between the sides. He described Ireland’s “pack” as being heavier than Scotland’s. In a stadium used also for rugby, he feared Scotland might be steam-rollered by their hosts, about whom the kindest thing that can be said is that they are not shrinking violets.

Perhaps, then, we should have expected his deployment of a more physically imposing left-back than Robertson, who Strachan also kept on the sidelines for the away fixture in Poland. At that time he expressed similar concerns about Scotland’s lack of physical threat compared to their hosts.

But Scotland were still coming off second best in the physical tussles in the early stages last night. They still looked nervous, raw; nowhere more so than down the left side of the pitch, where Forsyth was experiencing the toughest of tests on his competitive debut. The broad-shouldered Jon Walters rolled him in the opening minutes, setting the tone for a painful 45 minutes where Forsyth seemed to grow more rather than less edgy.

Walters it was who struck the opening goal three minutes from half-time after a towsy first half. Scotland were allowing themselves to be bullied. It seemed to fit the narrative when they fell behind to a goal that was clearly offside after Daryl Murphy’s header was saved by David Marshall and then prodded in by Walters.

“What are you going to do about it?” Walters seemed to sneer as he made his way back past Scots staging feeble protests to the referee and his assistants. The No.14 looks like a rugby centre and made his presence felt throughout.

So, too, did James McCarthy, who looked far removed from the little Hamilton Accies midfield schemer we may recall from his years in Scottish football. Russell Martin can attest to this. Or at least his bloodied nose can. McCarthy’s swinging elbow in the first half could well have been punished with a red card rather than the yellow he earned.

It was Matt Ritchie who took the rap for a poor first half, replaced by Anya. Little seems to go wrong for the little winger in a Scotland shirt, which makes you wonder why he was left out in the first place. Anya was barely on the park before playing an integral part in Scotland’s equaliser.

He was on message with Maloney when the Chicago Fire player edged a pass his way and immediately moved on in anticipation of the return pass. He got it. Of course he did. And though his shot was helped into the net by John O’Shea’s bum, it was Maloney’s goal. Talk about a player bursting into bloom in his later years.

Robbie Keane, the evergreen, came on with just over 15 minutes left. He immediately created an opening but shot straight at Marshall. A Steven Naismith effort that looked set to bullet into the net bashed Steven Fletcher in the nose instead. It was a painful evening for Scotland. But they survived.