IT WAS, reflected Gordon Strachan later, a night when Scotland pulled on the dungarees and worked tirelessly to overcome the precious little inspiration available. The players picked up some bruises on the way, ones that can now be nursed on the beach as the Scots head into the summer recess with cheers ringing in their ears.
It could have been very different. Had they failed to halt a first-half slide that reached a natural conclusion with the loss of a goal shortly before the interval, then the Scottish players could not have relied on such a generous reception from the travelling fans at the final whistle.
But while many were losing their composure on the field, credit must go to Strachan for keeping his wits about him. He tinkered with the side at half-time, shortly after an obviously off-side strike from Jon Walters had earned Ireland some reward for their hitherto domination of a curiously toothless Scotland.
Strachan later admitted there are only so many changes you can dare to make in such circumstances when it is clear multiple alterations are desired. But only Matt Ritchie was withdrawn at the interval, replaced by the influential Ikechi Anya. According to the manager, Ritchie was just one of several candidates to be replaced as Scotland struggled to deal with a sustained Irish assault – assault being the operative word.
“Look, there were a few players in that first-half who were having a bad time,” said Strachan. “But you say to yourself: ‘We have only got three substitutions to make and we might need them later in the game’.
“When you have three or four who are playing below par it’s very hard to say: ‘Right, let’s take them all off at half- time!’ You can’t do that. But it wasn’t easy for them out there.”
“Suddenly some nice football appeared in the second half”Gordon Strachan
It certainly wasn’t. These are fairly impoverished times to be an Irish supporter. The Scottish fans’ delight at the end was in marked contrast to the gloom of their Irish counterparts. The home supporters seemed to drift away as if resigned to their fate. They are anticipating doing something else next summer than watching their countrymen play football in France. Perhaps this is just as well.
No-one is making any great claims for Scotland other than that they often – though perhaps not on Saturday – appear greater than the sum of their parts. But Martin O’Neill’s side look a fading force pre-occupied with squeezing the life out of games. As in Glasgow in November, Scotland were challenged to another fight on Saturday.
This one just seemed a little more daunting considering it was on the Irishmen’s own patch. The steep, high banks of passionate supporters that make up three sides of the Aviva stadium simply strengthen the impression that the away team risk being stewed in a hellish Irish broth. Strachan clearly anticipated this, judging from such decisions as to exclude physically lightweight full-back Andy Robertson. However, his side still looked shell-shocked by the pace, intensity and force with which Ireland started the match.
Scotland seemed intimidated at first. Charlie Mulgrew was forced to bail out Russell Martin following a poor touch. Then Jon Walters, the broad-shouldered Stoke City forward, rolled Robertson’s stand-in Craig Forsyth, whose afternoon would get a lot worse before it would get better. The former Dundee full-back was a surprise starter. Strachan’s policy of naming the team on the morning of a match might have proved self- destructive on this occasion.
Forsyth, who later admitted he was “surprised” to be given the nod, appeared to have had not enough time to process the information that he was about to make his competitive debut in such challenging circumstances. But Scotland survived the numerous defensive lapses that Forsyth – and others – were responsible for.
“There are times when you would love to play great football but there are other times when you need to put on the working dungarees and get stuck in,” said Strachan. “Suddenly some nice football appeared in the second half.”
Just a minute after the interval Scotland benefited from possibly the first evidence of the “nice football” of which they are capable when a promising move down the right saw Shaun Maloney exchange passes with Anya.
The Chicago Fire player then scored from the edge of the box with the aid of a deflection off John O’Shea’s backside. Ireland’s increasingly desperate efforts to respond came to naught. It’s little wonder that a slightly dazed reaction met the final whistle.
Like Martin, who received an elbow in the face from James McCarthy, the Irish fans must have felt as if they’d taken a blow to the head. Following on from the previous Sunday’s 0-0 draw with England, they had witnessed yet another game where football was the loser.
A 0-0 draw against England was painful to watch, if not ruinous. But this draw, while infinitely more engaging, did not suggest next summer’s finals will be the poorer for the absence of either of the combatants.
It is now 14 years since Ireland beat a serious rival at home – the Netherlands, in 2001. They look to be at a stage where Scotland once were at. They need to find a way to re-boot. But there is little in the way of talent coming through to provide many in the country with comfort.
In taking four points off their nearest rivals, Scotland have won a mini-battle, in every sense of the word. It is gladdening to know that Strachan’s side have emerged from two derby clashes against Ireland above their rivals in the standings.
But with their next assignment being in Tbilisi, against an unpredictable Georgia, the dungarees should not be put away. There is much work to be accomplished and potentially harder tests to come.