Redemption for Steve Clarke as Scotland produce the performance they wanted in June
Steve Clarke surprised everybody by playing a back four. Scotland produced their own surprise – by winning a game that looked set to follow a very familiar, heart-breaking pattern.
But this time defeat was not snatched from the jaws of victory. Rather, there was delirious, joyous success at the end of a memorable night at Hampden as well as some redemption for Clarke.
Misfortune and very possibly grave injustice had threatened to be stirred into one big unpalatable serving.
But this was failing to allow for such an admirable warrior as John McGinn – skipper for the night in place of the injured Andy Robertson. More accurately, it was failing to allow for his backside, which someone might like to cast in clay on a plinth outside Hampden one day.
McGinn used this great attribute of his to superb effect as he held off Valery Bondar – already a villain of the night in the home fans’ eyes – as he fired Scotland in front with a shot from just inside the box with 20 minutes left.
The seal was broken. Lyndon Dykes came on and scored two towering headers from corners from fellow substitute Ryan Fraser as the game lurched in Scotland’s favour. Of course, it was impossible not to wonder: why couldn’t Scotland have done this on 1 June, when their World Cup hopes were on the line?
Events here seemed to back up the contention that the hosts could simply not win that night against a team charged by such a genuine, powerful cause. The same war in Ukraine is on-going but Scotland had to put their sympathies to one side. Clarke’s revitalised side succeeded in ensuring their Nations League campaign has got back on track. Indeed, the final result of 3-0 was every bit as emphatic as the 3-0 thumping in Dublin against Republic of Ireland that put Clarke under pressure. Scotland are now top of group B1. The manager is back to being a genius again.
Oh there was booing. There was booing all right. But the loudest howls were reserved for an unfortunate referee called Maurizio Mariani rather than in protest at the minute’s applause for the late Queen. This was good old-fashioned fury at the perceived shortcomings of an official who opted not to send off Bondar after a blatant bodycheck on Che Adams on the stroke of half-time. Mariani only considered the offence to be worth a booking. Hampden was not impressed although it’s a mere detail now.
The trepidation in the air was not solely from the recognition that Scotland’s hopes rested on not failing against a side who had already demonstrated their plentiful talent at Hampden three months previously.
SFA officials will have been nervous in anticipation of the minute’s applause rightly held prior to kick off after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Some booing followed the announcement there would be a tribute but the applause itself was everything Clarke had asked for when he said he hoped fans would be respectful, whatever their feelings.
He had other concerns of course – namely how Scotland would cope with this new-fangled four at the back system deployed for such a critical assignment. Clarke is nothing if not cussed.
He had spoken in favour of a back three set-up as recently as last week and stressed that it had served Scotland well in recent times. So of course he would revert to a formation he last employed in a 3-1 win over Kazakhstan in 2019 for a game on which so much hinged.
The logic admittedly appeared sound. The manager clearly wanted to keep players in the position where they have been playing for their clubs – Patterson at right back for Everton, for example, and Kieran Tierney more recently as left back at Arsenal. Scott McKenna and Jack Hendry combined in the middle.
It was a nice idea until Patterson injured a knee in a collision with Ruslan Malinovskyi 25 minutes in. It was a blow to not only Scotland fans but also Everton supporters as he was carried off the pitch. Aaron Hickey hurriedly put on his shin pads on the sidelines. It didn’t require a huge shake-up as a 20-year-old full back currently starring in the Premier League in England was replaced by someone fitting the very same description. Hickey did not let anyone down.
Clarke had watched as his side initially lived rather dangerously as Artem Dovbyk sought to exert his influence. McKenna succeeded in outmuscling the striker by the touchline and it seemed to energise a Hampden crowd that had begun to mutter uneasily as the visitors sprayed the ball around in scenes reminiscent of their last Hampden outing.
A similar moment arrived near the start of the second half. Ukraine has started probing menacingly once more but Hendry won a footrace with the same player and roused the supporters and helped energise his teammates. Armstrong got on the end of a Tierney cut back seconds later but the shot was too near the ‘keeper.
The same player then blazed wildly over after Scott McTominay’s neat back-flick. It was going to be one of those nights, wasn’t it? Yes it was, it seemed. This seemed an almost cast-iron prediction when Adams hit the bar with a header from McGinn’s cross. He then saw the 'keeper save with legs on the line as the striker chose to try his luck with a downward header when another chance arose after a near-identical ball across from McGinn.
McGinn turned from master of the assist to provider of the breakthrough after 70 minutes. Tierney’s pass deflected into his path and the captain did the rest. Dykes then trashed any notion that his goal touch has deserted him as he struck twice in four minutes with two flicks of his head from Fraser corners.
All the earlier chances, including when Adams failed to reach a cross from the left from Ryan Christie, were all rendered happily insignificant in a final analysis confirming Scotland as comfortable victors. Football, bloody hell.
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