After the disappointment of the 3-1 defeat by Ukraine, which dashed the Scots’ hopes of qualifying for the European Championships, Scot Gemmill’s young side headed out at Tynecastle last night hoping to salvage something from the second match in the double-header, even if it was only some pride.
It was never likely to be easy but, given the Nations League failings of Alex McLeish’s team, the onus was on the age-group Scots to attempt to improve the mood and galvanise the nation following a bruising international break. But against England who are now unbeaten at this level in 35 qualifiers, it was a near-impossible task.
While Gemmill fielded a side that included players from clubs such as Dunfermline and Ayr United, they faced foes from more lofty and glamorous footballing institutions such as Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal, the majority of whom were physically more imposing, quicker in thought and deed and, consequently, swarmed over their hosts all match.
“It was a great experience for the players. To face players of that calibre – to see the speed of play and the different aspects of the game mentally, physically, tactically,” said Scotland boss Gemmill. “They’re possibly the best team in the competition, possibly the best team in the world. But I want to speak about our young players and how well they’ve done. The team has evolved. We feel we’ve got the balance correct in terms of opportunity and development while being competitive and I hope the fans go home happy to see a team that showed a tactical discipline and intelligence and grit to play against a top team and still be in the game right till the death because of the work they’re willing to do.”
The only relief for a Scotland side was the fact that Aidy Boothroyd’s England side could not turn their vastly superior possession into something more tangible than a two-goal victory.
A sprinkling of breakaway attacks was the most the Scots could muster throughout the 90 minutes but they were either wild with their shooting or quickly chased down and corralled by their rivals before they could threaten the England goal.
Instead they had to dig deep. Defensively, though, Scotland can be pleased with the way they kept at it, and maintained their discipline at the back, rushing out to block or working hard to double up on anyone looking to unleash a strike.
After a brief opening period while both sides tested the water, it was the England players who bared their teeth, sussing out that they were the hunters in this scenario, the young Scots the prey. In the eighth minute Crystal Palace’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka crossed in from the right, picking out Liverpool’s Dominic Solanke, but he had to settle for a corner.
Wan-Bissaka then latched on to a throw-in and his power, athleticism and pace allowed him to cut inside and lay off to Aston Villa’s on-loan Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham who lashed a shot at goal on the turn but was blocked by Ryan Porteous.
When Scotland burst upfield soon after, Fikayo Tomori anticipated the through ball and stepped in to clear. But England were patient, passing and probing, pinning Scotland back, waiting for them to lose their man or switch off momentarily. Lewis Morgan, pictured, and Greg Taylor tried to provide an outlet for the home side but attacks soon floundered.
For England, Josh Onomah sent his shot from the edge of the box over. But in 29 minutes there was a decent Scotland chance, when David Bates’ header back in from a cleared Morgan free-kick gave Ross McCrorie the chance to hook one past Henderson but he was unable to keep it down from close range and it was back to England pressing.
A minute later a swift, sweeping England surge ended with Harvey Barnes ballooning his angled drive over before Bates and the keeper then combined to prevent Barnes opening the scoring, the former putting in a tackle on the goalline and the keeper collecting the ball as it squirted out of the challenge.
Barnes then turned provider, whipping in a delivery from the right and Abrahams went for the spectacular volleyed finish, but he just couldn’t find the goal. Abrahams had another dig, four minutes from the interval but Doohan saved with his feet. After the restart the keeper was called into action again after Nelson dribbed through a sea of Scotland players and picked out the perfect cutback to Barnes, who was unable to beat the Celtic keeper, who is on loan at Ayr United.
Scotland were delaying the inevitable against the team who finished top of the qualifying group and the opening goal finally came in the 60th minute when McCrorie fouled Dowell and Reiss Nelson pinged the dead ball into the top corner from 25 yards.
It was more of the same but with six minutes remaining Scotland did force an intervention by Henderson, who had to stop a Morgan angled effort.
England had the last word when Everton’s Dowell cut inside and scorched a left-foot effort into the net with virtually the last kick.