The most extraordinary Scotland performance: Promotion and play-off spot secured in face of sickness and injury on milestone Krakow night
Rarely has a 0-0 draw contained such abundant gifts. Clarke now lies behind only Jock Stein, Craig Brown and Andy Roxburgh in number of games managed. They all led Scotland to a World Cup.
Perhaps Clarke will, too, one day. Right now, he can content himself with winning promotion to League A of the Nations League and securing another opportunity to reach a European Championship finals though the backdoor. Scotland will, of course, hope to enter through the front door when the draw for Euro 2024 is made next month. And why not? They are now in the second seed pot.
Scotland overcame injury and sickness to prevail in Krakow against Ukraine. As anticipated, they had to defend as if their lives depended on it. Their League A promotion hopes certainly did as well as everything else which now flows from such a precious result, including the insurance policy of a Euro 2024 play-off. “We are going up,” chanted the Scotland fans at the end. “England’s going down.”
It was nervy in the way it always seems to be with Scotland. That had to be taken as read. But this might well stand as one of the team’s greatest results, certainly in recent times. Everything was on the line.
The Tartan Army had to hold their breath as Ukraine broke through on countless occasions, only to be thwarted by poor finishing, good saves and late offside flags. Artem Dovbyk was a particular offender when it came to straying offside.
Nothing comes easily in international football, but this was extraordinary. A Scotland side ravaged by sickness and forced into so many changes hung on. Clarke cleverly employed his substitutes in the second half with Hearts left back Stephen Kingsley coming on for his second Scotland cap with 17 minutes left to play. He played his part.
But it was a debutant who stole the show and vindicated Clarke’s courageous decision to field him. Ryan Porteous was man of the match. Did he look happy? He did indeed. And so did Clarke, unusually.
Scotland’s centre half pairing was a 23-year-old Hibs debutant alongside a player with just eight minutes of first-team football to his name so far this season. Porteous and Jack Hendry both have a reputation for being impetuous but here they were simply imperious. They were joined by Aaron Hickey, who endured several heavy challenges as he rubber stamped his international credentials.
The referee giveth – and VAR taketh away. The main talking point of the first half was the penalty Scotland thought they had received after 25 minutes.
But beware Greek bearing gifts – and Greek referees in particular. Tasos Sidiropoulos ran to the half-way line to consult his monitor and then overturned the award when he saw that Ryan Fraser’s cross had struck Taras Stepanenko’s head rather than his hand.
There was an indication that Fraser knew what was coming. He had already started to move towards the corner flag. There was little for the Scots to complain about, although the referee then took the strange decision to re-start play by giving the ball to Ukraine rather than with the corner Scotland had in fact won. The referee had certainly made himself popular in the stands where the Ukraine fans sat holding up yellow and blue cards.
It had been easy to forget that this was a home match for Ukraine. The advantage was eroded somewhat due to the relocation 500 miles west of Kyiv but several thousand of those already living in Krakow and those who had moved here since the Russian invasion turned out to cheer on their heroes. The Ukraine FA officials did ensure they marked their territory by laying out a large Ukraine flag in the centre circle prior to kick off.
It was boisterous but far from intimidating for Scotland as they set about seeking to secure the point required as the icy rain began to fall. The greatest hindrance seemed to be the bumpy pitch. The ball took some extreme bounces at times.
All the while, a young centre half from Dalkeith was attempting to feel his way into international football. Porteous was one of six changes to the starting XI from Saturday night’s 2-1 win over Republic of Ireland. Injury and sickness had forced Clarke’s hand in several instances, particularly in defence.
Porteous was preferred over Declan Gallagher perhaps on account of his younger age and greater pace. Make no mistake, this was a testing first cap.
The Hibs player looked understandably nervous in the opening moments and the speedy Ukraine forwards seemed capable of exploiting the high line Scotland were seeking to hold. One of Porteous’ first involvements was to boot the ball straight out of play.
It seemed high risk at times but then Scotland had so nearly ensured Ukraine would have to score twice to secure the win they required when Che Adams found the space to play a one-two with John McGinn. Andriy Lunin made a fine save down low to his right. Little more than a minute was on the clock.
There was a let off for Scotland as well. Indeed, more than one. The unmarked Andriy Yarmolenko blazed over after good play on the left from Mykhailo Mudryk. Dovbyk then broke through behind Porteous and latched onto Yarmolenko’s through ball. Craig Gordon pulled off a fine save.
It was a frantic, end-to-end encounter played with a cup-tie intensity. A header from Stepanenko flashed wide. Ryan Jack should have been more accurate when he cleared the bar from eight yards after the ball dropped to him. Nevertheless, Scotland reached half-time still firmly on course. They were 45 minutes from promotion.
It did in fact feel like several hours as Scotland waited for the referee to blow his whistle. Porteous made one vital intervention as substitute Oleksandr Zubkov prepared to shoot.
And then when the referee finally did bring proceedings to an end, with smoke billowing from one end of the stadium from a flare left off by a Ukraine fan, the relief was palpable. As was the joy in a corner of the stadium where the Scotland supporters hailed the magnificent work of a patched-up, exhausted team.