The question of who should play up front for Scotland has become a national obsession.
Oliver Burke is the latest candidate to manoeuvre himself into position ahead of tomorrow night’s clash with Belgium. At a combined cost of nearly £30 million, he’s an expensive and luxurious auxiliary at club level. On the international stage, he’s priceless at present.
A second-half substitute, Burke certainly got his new manager out of a bind against Cyprus on Saturday night. Scotland tested the nerves of their supporters and made life difficult for themselves for the second successive outing at Hampden. As against Israel in November, all’s well that ends well.
It is common for managers to reflect on matches very differently to how they previewed them. The words “must win” never passed Steve Clarke’s lips and it was less must win than some others of late. The SFA aren’t in the business of judging managers on the strength of 90 minutes – not yet, at least. Rod Petrie might have different ideas when he officially takes over the reins of president later this week.
But anything other than a victory against Cyprus would have placed an immediate question mark over Clarke’s judgment, something he acknowledged afterwards. On his unveiling last month, he stressed qualification from the group stage was the aim. A draw on Saturday night, which is what the giant scoreboards at either end of the ground were reporting with just a couple of minutes left of normal time, would have made a mockery of this bold claim.
The pressure was undeniable. Clarke’s uncharacteristically expressive reactions after both Scotland’s goals, Burke’s prodded-in 89th minute winner in particular, were an illustration of the relief flooding the stadium. The manager later explained that these instinctive decisions to punch the air were gestures motivated from knowing what the players have been through of late in Scotland colours – and what he saw them putting in over the last few days. “I’m not getting carried away – you guys know me better than that,” he said.
“I knew they were in a good place and I think they showed in patches in the game they were in a good place,” he added. “But the pressure and the occasion and the pressure of trying to get the three points was immense and was always there. I am just delighted they showed the character and resilience. It would be easy at 1-1 to drop the heads and think ‘well, that’s the end of the qualifying campaign’.
“We are still in it and I am pleased for the players because now we have four games against the two top teams [Belgium and Russia] in the group and we have to get points.”
Further goals would help to that end. Burke was an immediate threat when he came on. Clarke sought to temper expectations and he is right to do so given the West Bromwich Albion player spent six months on loan at Celtic trying to find his feet, scoring only four times. Saturday’s was his first goal in seven appearances for Scotland.
Remarkably given all the hype that’s surrounded him for several years, it was only Burke’s 40th start in senior football. With this in mind, Clarke appealed for the 22-year-old to be granted some time and space “in which to grow”. Not physically one imagines. He’s already the finished article in this respect but there’s plenty room for improvement with regards technique.
Burke is clearly still getting to grips with playing as a No 9, which is where it looks as though he has greater chance of being involved with Scotland. Ryan Fraser, who tried to make things happen all night and got his reward with the cross for Burke’s winner, and James Forrest look a well-balanced pair on the flanks. “You can’t immediately, because he scored the winning goal tonight against Cyprus, put all the pressure on to Oli to be the goalscorer going forward,” warned Clarke.
Even greater grace must be applied to Eamonn Brophy, who Burke replaced after 72 minutes. He found the step up from Kilmarnock tough going. “For a first cap, it was a difficult game,” said Clarke. “It was one up front against big strong centre-halves. But he never stopped working and chasing down.”
Brophy had little sight of goal save for a half-chance with a header and another occasion when he failed to react quickly enough to a Forrest cross. It was all getting a bit congested around the Cyprus area and Andy Robertson’s 20-yard drive into the top corner was one way of bypassing the logjam. It signalled a spell where Scotland looked like a side who’d flung worries from their shoulders. Even Stephen O’Donnell, a right-back, almost scored from the left-wing position.
But slowly, surely, the old doubts crept in, as did the old frailties. Robertson won’t want to see a replay of Ionnis Kousoulos’ equaliser again having lost his man at a corner, which the left-back had in fact conceded.
Clarke mentioned goalkeeper David Marshall’s steadying presence. It had felt significant that he was brought back into the squad and the Hull City keeper looked assured in his first international start since late 2016 against Slovakia. Scott Bain will be disappointed but can reflect on a season that’s already outstripped anyone’s expectations for him. He’ll be back.
As is stands, Marshall is the man back in possession of the gloves and he will need to apply an extra sticky layer of grip before facing Romelu Lukaku and co tomorrow night in Brussels.
“It was difficult,” said Clarke, of the goalkeeper decision. “I just felt that David’s experience would be good for us. That is also why I put Charlie [Mulgrew] in at centre back.
“The team that played tonight is almost 100 caps more experienced than the team that played in San Marino and Kazakhstan. I think it made a difference.”