Maybe it is these feverishly political times, but a slogan of feckless former prime minister Theresa May kept coming to mind watching Scotland squeeze out a 2-1 victory in Cyprus. Hard-working families with nothing much to spare she described as “just about managing”. In ensuring back-to-back wins for the first time in Steve Clarke’s seven-month tenure, it certainly was a case yesterday of a hard-working Scotland just about managing.
Clarke could be forgiven for seeking to apply some gloss to a success that had little in the way of lustre aside from the goals by Ryan Christie and John McGinn, by some margin the visitors’ two most sparky and productive performers.
In his post-match appraisal, he maintained that the result mattered more than the – uncomfortably streaky – performance. In addition, the 56-year-old said that a win at home to Kazakhstan on Tuesday would not only cement the third place from Group I he set as the target once qualification hopes from the section had disappeared. Crucially – as far as Clarke is concerned – it would also rack up a three-game winning streak for the first time in two years and so allow them to build momentum before the Nations League play-off semi-final rolls around at the end of March.
The problem with this theory is that momentum doesn’t build in international football when there is a gap of four months between games. A point best illustrated by a parallel with yesterday’s Cyprus assignment that paints the display in a less favourable light. A year ago this week, as with the encounter in Nicosia, Scotland were forced to cope with a raft of significant call-offs before facing Albania in Shkoder. The resultant patched-up side pasted the home team 4-0 to register a first competitive away win over a top 100-ranked opponent in five years, before seeing off Israel three days later to win their Nations League group.
Everything then seemed to be coming together for Alex McLeish. An abysmal 3-0 thumping in Kazakhstan next time out, though, and his 14-month tenure was in its death throes.
Against a Cyprus team ranked 30-odd places below Albania, Scotland yesterday produced none of the pyrotechnics that they did in Shkoder… even as they eked out a win that took their tally of competitive away successes against top 100-ranked teams to two in six years.
Yet, missing Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney, Scott McTominay, Ryan Fraser and Leigh Griffiths – would-be starters for the Nations League semi-final at Hampden on 26 March – Clarke will have learned precious little about what he can expect from his team come this crunch date.
Well, almost nothing. For all that yesterday’s 47th minute Cypriot equaliser – which brought an instant response courtesy of McGinn’s winner five minutes later, his fifth strike in three internationals – meant three of the last eight goals Scotland have conceded have resulted from set-pieces, the debut of Motherwell centre-back Declan Gallagher appeared a genuine plus.
Clarke strangely downplayed the 28-year-old’s contribution afterwards.
Yet, while his senior partner – in experience – Scott McKenna, inset, proved skittish, Gallagher exhibited a welcome degree of assurance. Even allowing for the modest nature of the opposition, he already looks as good a bet as any to fill a decidedly problematic position.
Maybe, then, Clarke did derive everything he needed from his team’s excursion to the eastern Mediterranean. He has had desperately meagre helpings of acceptable outcomes – on the receiving end of stuffings from Belgium and Russia – across his short time at the helm of the national team. To be able to reflect on his most notable win, and have another option for the centre-back roles, represents a decent return in these austere times.
Unlike the hapless May, though, he is sure to wait before promoting any claim that a time of austerity is as good as over.