Scotland suffered and Gordon Strachan paid the price for adventure on a sobering night at Wembley.
Three goals down after 60 minutes, the manager had plenty of time to consider his future on a night when Scotland’s limitations were exposed by a moderate England side.
One consolation was that Scotland did not disgrace the jersey, since the one they wore was an unfamiliar alternative to their normal dark blue. Scotland might have been pink but they were well done after an hour. It felt like a long, long night after that for the Tartan Army, whose patience now seems to be fraying. After just four games of another qualifying campaign, the painful truth had been spelled out once more: simply not good enough.
What it means for Strachan, pictured, time will tell. There is little appetite at the Scottish Football Association to sack him. However, last night might have offered Strachan the final proof he can do no more with this group of players.
No one could accuse the manager of conservatism. If this is to prove his last match in charge, he shrugged off the shackles. Contrary to the end, if that is what it is, he finally handed Leigh Griffiths another start despite the striker having recently lost his place at Celtic. But as with Scott Brown’s much-trumpeted return, it was to no avail.
Scotland struggled with the basics. While England claimed three excellent headed goals, Grant Hanley skewed a header high over the bar when unmarked shortly after Daniel Sturridge’s opener.
But the defender’s greatest crime was failing to stay onside on those few occasions in the first half when Scotland were handed precious set-piece opportunities near the England box.
James Forrest pulled a shot past the post from 12 yards shortly after half-time. Moments later England scored their crucial second goal from Adam Lallana.
So Scotland could point to game-turning moments. But the painful truth is they failed to contain an England side that have struggled of late to turn pressure into goals. Even Malta proved more troublesome to overcome at Wembley earlier in this campaign.
Scotland were twice cut open by crosses from both England full-backs, highlighting where some of their troubles lay. Ikechi Anya was deployed out of position at full-back despite not starting for Derby County since the middle of last month.
He failed to deal with Danny Rose, whose 49th minute cross was headed deftly into the net by Lallana. England’s opener was sourced from the other side, where Lee Wallace, Strachan’s third-choice left-back, was unable to cut out Walker’s pacey ball into the box. Sturridge simply had to guide the cross into the net.
It was a deflating moment for Scotland after emotional scenes before kick-off.
Skipper Darren Fletcher made a beeline to the fans and punched the air before returning to shake the hand of former Manchester United team-mate Wayne Rooney. The players then stood around the centre circle to observe a minute’s silence on Armistice Day that was ended by the Last Post.
It was a genuinely affecting beginning and a reminder that, though critical to Scotland’s chances of progressing to the World Cup finals, this was was still only a football match.
But few such contests are so charged. No other is framed by so much history. Though one side wore an unfamiliar coloured shirt, the 90 minutes bore most of the hallmarks of games between these two sides, neither of whom are as good as they want to be. In England’s case, this doesn’t infringe on their efforts to reach major finals. For Scotland, sadly, it does.
The game was scrappy for the most part but was lit up by moments of quality. Frustratingly for Strachan, these came nearly always from England.
The hosts’ first effort on goal was an inadvertent one by Hanley, whose header from a corner was gathered by Craig Gordon. In the corner 14,000 Scots breathed a sigh of relief.
There was anxiety in this area of the ground again when Raheem Sterling went down under a challenge by Wallace, but referee Cuneyt Cakir waved play on. The goal England were now threatening to score arrived in the 24th minute on the back of patient, careful possession play by the hosts. Walker provided the cross that speared Scotland with Sturridge required only to steer the ball past Gordon with the cutest of headed flicks.
Scotland coach Andy Watson rushed to the touchline to rally the players. Strachan joined him moments later. But it was a setback, no question. Scotland spurned the chance to equalise minutes later when Hanley found space in the box from Snodgrass’s corner but lifted his header high over the bar from the edge of the six-yard box.
But even this didn’t feel as pivotal as when Forrest drove wide from in front of the goal after a neat dummy by Griffiths wrong-footed an English defence seeking to cope with Wallace’s cutback.
Forrest did well to create space for himself by stepping inside his marker, but then got his angles wrong with a shot that skidded wide.
A minute later Lallana struck the goal that might be remembered as sealing Strachan’s fate.
But it was to get worse still on the night for Scotland when Cahill flicked in yet another header, this time from Rooney’s corner. Sterling’s later miss from a yard in front of goal felt like an act of clemency by Scotland’s supposed fiercest rivals.