There was no sense of pride being salvaged, of the country being put on the right track, of the shock waves and anger earthquakes caused by the Kazakhstan catastrophe being in any way ameliorated as Scotland posted the most mundane of victories over San Marino tonight.
It probably could be no other way, in truth, but that didn’t make the booing of the Scotland players as they left the pitch at full-time by the Tartan Army any less arresting. It was merely the product of them making the journey from awful to utterly average. An early goal from Kenny McLean and a late clincher from Johnny Russell sandwiched some stultifying football from Alex Mcleish’s men that had the supporters in ferment.
Scotland coach James McFadden had said pre-match that even a 10-0 win would not be enough for the growing band of McLeish’s detractors but the fact is that the 2-0 victory was almost the least the national team could do in the circumstances. Though, in fairness, it is all they ever seem to do in the San Marino Stadium, where they have never shown commanding form and now have posted 2-0 scorelines four times.
The backdrop to a game that has allowed Scotland to pick up their first point in Group I of their Euro 2020 qualifying group hung over it like a pall. And it is what in no small part caused the visiting supporters to jeer their team off.
As these same players lined up for the anthems beforehand adorned in their black tracksuit tops, there was an argument for saying they shouldn’t have then removed them. These were suitably funeral. For, just as Andy Roxburgh said of his Scotland after a 5-0 drubbing by Portugal in April 1993, the 3-0 filleting in the Astana Arena on Thursday felt like the night the current incarnation of the national team died.
Certainly, McLeish donned his black cap when it came to making his selection for the encounter. He made six changes from three days’ earlier. In came captain Andrew Robertson, plastic-pitch allergic pair Ryan Fraser and Callum Paterson, Stephen O’Donnell, Russell and McLean. In truth, any of those who condemned Scotland to its greatest ignominy could have made way. As it transpired, James Forrest, Liam Palmer, Oliver Burke, Oli McBurnie, John McGinn and Graeme Shinnie formed the group who did so.
It was a huge call from McLeish to bench Forrest. The Celtic winger may have failed to produce in Kazakhstan in common with a raft of team-mates, but his scoring exploits in the Nations League meant he still boasted five goals from his past three competitive appearances for his county. In terms of the incomers, the Scotland manager might also have been considered to exhibit boldness in handing Norwich City midfielder McLean a competitive debut, and overlooking the claims for inclusion by Scott McTominany. For once this week, McLeish was soon vindicated.
With Scotland swarming and determined - as was the least that ought to have been expected of them in the desperate circumstances they had created for themselves - it was no great surprise that they could rapid puncture the defence of the part-timers. The moment came in the fifth minute when a Fraser lofted ball in from the left found McLean in acres of space. He was able to stoop meet it and, without the cleanest contact, he fashioned an angled header that crept in at the far post.
Scotland’s earliest goal in Serravalle should have offered a platform for them to take apart the lowest ranked side in world football; their position of 211th the product of a 35-game competitive losing streak across the past four-and-a-half years.
Even the more straightforward of tasks suddenly now appears anything but for McLeish’s side, though, and their efforts to add to their advantage became both increasingly tortuous and, frankly, tedious. It resulted in the Tartan Army become tetchy, choruses of boos becoming ever-more audible as the first period dragged on.
No doubt jaiked on their jolly, the 2950 travelling fans had been in remarkably good spirits beforehand, even cheering the players names as they were read out on the tannoy and clapping them when they appeared for the warm-up.
By an hour in, though, their mood had turned pitch black, with cries of “sack the board” giving way to chants of “f*** the SFA’. It had darkened because, apart from Stuart Armstrong drawing a double-save from Elia Benedettini in 25 minutes, the pattern of the game altered to such an extent that San Marino seemed as likely to score as their shapeless and, generally lifeless visitors.
On the half hour, the absence of constructive passing and telling quick movement in forward areas from Scotland genuinely threatened to give way to a disaster that would have potentially knocked the grim events of Kazakhstan into a cocked hat. Slack play from Scotland allowed San Marino to break with promise down the right, leading to collective hearts-in-mouths among the visiting fans as Filippo Bernardi slipped in Jose Hirsch for a clear sight at goal, only for him to drill the ball into the side netting.
With Paterson, utilised as the attacking spearhead, shortly afterwards being lost to an ankle knock that brought Marc McNulty into the action, the sense of a fragile Scotland beginning to fray took root. The interval provided little respite with another scare coming 52 minutes in after when Scott McKenna put his hand on the back of Filippo Berardi and the forward tumbled in the box, referee Manuel Schuettengruber adjudging the player went to ground too easily.
The outcome remained in the balance until Forrest was introduced for Armstrong with 20 minutes remaining and then three minutes later tore down the right and squared a low ball that Marc McNulty stepped over to allow Russell to jink round the keeper and then ram a shot high into the net for a composed finish. The Scotland player reacted with relief more than celebration to the encounter settler. As well they might have done, with this display doing nothing to dispel the clouds gathering around McLeish.
Scotland: Bain; O’Donnell, Bates, McKenna, Robertson: McLean, McGregor (McTominay 57); Russell, Armstrong (Forrest 70), Fraser; Paterson (McNulty 37). Subs: McLaughlin, Kelly, Palmer, Souttar, Fleck, Shinnie, Burke, McBurnie.