Scotland had appeared to give their hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup a shot in the arm with a momentous and famous victory over England, until Harry Kane netted a stoppage time equaliser.
If ever the final minutes of a football game illustrated it is not failure but hope that really shreds the psyche, for Scotland supporters it was the closing seven – four of them added – played out at Hampden yesterday.
From delirium to despair felt like it was travelled in a nanosecond. And not, instead, the actual two minutes that elapsed between Leigh Griffiths – impossibly, dazzlingly – bemusing Joe Hart for a second time in rapid succession with a placed free-kick and putting Scotland 2-1 up and Harry Kane sweetly volleying in at the back post after Raheem Sterling had flighted the ball over from the left flank.
The inquests, the forensic dissections on the moments that cost Scotland a first win over England in 17 years, the first at Hampden since 1985 and a first landmark victory that would have truly revived Scotland’s World Cup qualifying campaign, will be never ending. Even if, ultimately, the draw was a commendable outcome for Gordon Strachan’s side, who were outplayed for long spells by their hardly-scintillating adversaries.
It is likely that the anguish will settle on three moments. Kane’s goal resulted from a Scotland break wherein Stuart Armstrong was able to sprint beyond his own box. He could then have kept going or, with only 90 seconds to negotiate, hoofed it as far upfield as possible. Instead, he attempted to release Griffiths, and only succeeded in allowing Kyle Walker to pick the ball up and send it to Sterling.
The errors that brought England’s opener in the 70th minute were perhaps more pronounced. It was a real botch from Craig Gordon when he allowed a back pass from Kieran Tierney to run under his foot as Dele Alli closed in on him, which forced the Scotland keeper to kick the ball out for a throw. From that, Scotland defended in scatty fashion and were punished. Scott Brown missed a tackle on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain before Tierney and Armstrong seemed properly goal side of the substitute, only for him to be able to squeeze a shot through from the edge of the area that Gordon – jittery all afternoon – got behind yet could not prevent going through him.
Mistakes will be made by a team so often forced on to the back foot and whatever the shortcomings of Scotland, they deserve credit for their application and, in the case of Griffiths, class. His two free-kick strikes that brought him his first goals in the international arena on the occasion of his 13th cap were described by a magnanimous England manager Gareth Southgate as “moments of unbelievable quality”.
The technical brilliance of Griffiths was matched only by his chutzpah in how he crafted the 87th and 90th-minute dead-ball strikes. Whip and whirl took his first over the England wall and to the left of Hart. When he stepped up to take another from a similar position 25 yards out, you thought he couldn’t do it again. He did, by this time curling the ball round the wall and burying it to the left of Hart. Neither was right in the corner, raising questions of the England keeper, but it was the wiles of the Celtic striker that were central to a stupendous double.
If the squandering of a winning position thereafter felt cataclysmic, it should never be forgotten that, with Scotland failing to possess a single player that would make it into the England team, this was not a game of equals. Strachan recognised that with a strategy set around a surprise 5-4-1 formation.
Sensible more than negative, whatever the grumbles from the home stands as Scotland were inevitably withdrawn for periods, fielding a central defensive trio marked a departure from the norm for Strachan. In placing Tierney on the left of it, he confounded expectations of the left full-back being switched to the right. Instead, he backed Andrew Robertson up on the left, and did so with aplomb. The pair were unyielding as Scotland’s backs were glued to the wall.
The home denizens were left as excitable as kittens by the fact that not all of the encounter early on was a story of England domination and Scotland digging in. Across the entire, uhm, first ten minutes, Scotland were brisk and bold, their zeal only brimming over when Brown wiped out Alli to earn a third-minute booking. It couldn’t last, of course, and within quarter of an hour the anticipated pattern of play was set: England driving forward and having sole possession of the ball for long stretches with Scotland forced into the hit-it-anywhere mode of defending. A first warning came with the leg of Gordon blocking a Kane effort.
Scotland couldn’t get a foothold in the encounter across the first period. With James McArthur on for a hirpling James Morrison, they broke better after the interval, though survived a bout of penalty box bagatelle in which a Jake Livermore shot came off Robertson and smacked the upright. There were moans that Brown was lucky to escape a second yellow after he clattered into Alli only minutes before what seemed like a Griffiths headline act that, unbelievably, was required to share the billing. For Scotland’s Strachan, though, the show must go on and this was an outcome to prevent the curtain falling on World Cup play-off hopes.