For several years now, a succession of Scotland managers have regularly informed us that midfield is the strongest area of their squad.
That doesn’t exactly mean they have been laden with an embarrassment of riches in that department – the country’s record over the past two decades is testament to that.
For Gordon Strachan, the depth of choice open to him in midfield was thrown into the sharpest focus at Hampden last night. The manager’s selection did all he could have asked as the dream of a place at next year’s World Cup finals lives on, at least until Sunday night in Slovenia.
The loss of injured Celtic duo Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong, who would both have been certain starters against Slovakia, was compounded by the late withdrawal of Newcastle United winger Matt Ritchie.
It meant Strachan turned to the most experienced, if recently rarely used, member of his squad. It must have been as obvious to Darren Fletcher as it has been to everyone else over the past 12 months that Strachan regards him as very much a second choice behind Brown as his fulcrum. But if the 33-year-old former Manchester United man has ever been tempted to step away from the international scene during that period, he has wisely kept his own counsel on the subject.
Fletcher’s reward for his patience came in the shape of his recall last night, his first starting appearance for the Scots since the 3-0 defeat at Wembley last November, and a part in a precious victory which maintains the prospect of reaching the play-offs.
It was also another milestone moment for the nation’s third most-capped player of all time behind Kenny Dalglish and Jim Leighton. Now in his 16th consecutive season of English Premier League football, the Stoke City man was deployed in the holding role as Strachan tinkered slightly with his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation.
Barry Bannan, who despite being regularly talked up by Strachan as the best player in the English Championship had not started for Scotland since the 3-0 loss to Slovakia in Trnava a year ago, was given the responsibility of providing the attacking drive which Armstrong delivered so impressively following his introduction midway through the campaign.
Fletcher was as diligent and composed as ever in a Scotland side who found themselves facing short-handed opposition after just 22 minutes when Robert Mak was foolishly dismissed for a second yellow card as he blatantly dived in pursuit of a penalty kick.
The home side struggled to make their numerical advantage count, however, and Fletcher was required to make a timely tackle on the edge of his own penalty area as the Slovaks threatened.
This was the 34th time Fletcher had been captain of the side, edging him above Gary McAllister in that particular list with only the legendary figures of George Young and Billy Bremner now having led Scotland more often.
But in his eighth qualifying campaign under his sixth Scotland manager since making his debut under Berti Vogts over a decage ago, what he desired most was the chance to add participation at a major tournament finals to his CV.
Brown’s form for Celtic over the past season and a half has vindicated Strachan’s preference for his dynamic brand of leadership. So too have the statistics. Brown’s last seven games for Scotland have included five victories. In Fletcher’s previous seven before last night, he had been on the winning side only once.
As he sought to improve those numbers, Scotland’s play lacked tempo and the sharpness of passing necessary to force Slovakia back. The visitors appeared anything but outrun in midfield where the outstanding Stanislav Lobotka drove them forward. They looked just as likely as the Scots to make the breakthrough, prompting Strachan to replace James Forrest with by Chris Martin.
The clocks on the giant Hampden screens were ticking too fast for the Tartan Army’s liking as Scotland’s World Cup hopes ebbed away. Fletcher, sporting a Terry Butcher-esque bandage after running repairs to a head wound, tried to drive his team on but their lack of a cutting edge was summed up by a blind pass from Bannan into the penalty area when the unmarked Leigh Griffiths should have been picked out.
Hope was agonisingly rekindled with stunning efforts from Martin and Griffiths which both smacked back off Martin Dubravka’s crossbar.
Fletcher was replaced by James McArthur in the closing stages as time appeared to be running out on the hosts before Strachan’s final throw of the dice, the introduction of Ikechi Anya, saw the substitute’s low cross turned into his own net by Martin Skrtel for the dramatic late winner.