A punch-drunk Gordon Strachan reached for the boxing metaphors after admitting his emotions took a pounding in an extraordinary conclusion to Scotland’s 2-2 draw with England.
“That was probably one of the most emotional games ever in my managerial career,” Strachan said. “As a player, you get on with it but as a manager that was hard work. All sorts of emotions. I’ve got to say. It was like watching a heavyweight boxer fighting a middleweight. These [England] guys are giants, they play at a different level to most of us and they kept coming back.
“Their strength and power and speed is hard to deal with – but they did it. They keep coming back. Whatever anyone thinks about us as a group of players, I tell you one thing you can’t question is their personality, their character, their commitment. That was beyond the call of duty. There’s no-one in here, or in the support, who knows how hard it is to play against these players on a day like that.”
Leigh Griffiths earned effusive praise from his manager for the 87th- and 90th-minute free-kicks that appeared to have given Scotland a famous win after the 70th-minute strike by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, pictured.
“I can’t think of any better for Scotland. I really can’t,” he said of Griffiths’ bewitching of Joe Hart. “Going back all the years I’ve been watching Scotland I can remember great goals from the likes of Kenny [Dalglish] and Charlie Nicholas. But for actual strikes, I can’t. And then to do it again, against the tallest wall you could probably put up in the whole of European football today. He went over the top and then around the side. He’s a great character, you know, a wonderful character. Strange, but wonderful.”
Strachan admitted the draw felt like a defeat. “It does,” he said. “We’re talking about one pass, one in the air, one header to somewhere else and we win the game.” One pass that might have made the difference was the one that Stuart Armstrong tried to play to Griffiths in the 92nd minute which was intercepted in the move that led to the last-gasp England equaliser.
“I didn’t even see it but I know fine well he’s done enough to be allowed a mistake,” said Strachan. “He’s been magnificent in two games for us. I don’t blame anybody. I can’t blame anybody for anything. I’ve seen Scotland’s best-ever free-kick – and then Scotland’s second best-ever free kick right after it. And I have a noise after that like I’ve never heard before.
“So these memories will be with me, and I’ll look at the players and think it’s unfair that they have to keep coming back and taking knocks like that – but they turn up and they do. That could have been my best result as a manager, and I’ve been lucky enough to get some good ones against Man United and AC Milan and teams like that.”
Strachan called the England game must-not-lose and that requirement was met by his team to prevent any pressure building over his position. If they win all four of their remaining games – which will see them visit Lithuania in September, then entertain Malta, before hosting Slovakia and then travelling to Slovenia the next month – Scotland will retain a decent chance of making the play-offs but the Scotland manager was not in the mood to consider qualifying prospects last night.
“I’m not in a thinking mood just now,” he said. “All my thinking is left out on that touchline. It all went. I’m trying my best to be coherent here and maybe it’s not working. But it’s very hard to think. People are asking me what I’m thinking but I’m just thinking I want to get home and have a cup of tea.”
England counterpart Gareth Southgate’s thinking, meanwhile, was that his team had shown backbone. “We controlled the game, got a deserved lead, then there’s a mad minute and a half when a free-kick we shouldn’t concede and two moments of real quality from Griffiths. Great credit to him. Under great pressure, he delivers two outstanding technical finishes.
“Then most importantly for me, we’re heading into injury time 2-1 down, but I don’t see anybody sink to their knees, anybody hit the floor. I see body language that says we’re still in the game and we should never, ever be throwing in the towel in those moments. I think it’s a huge moment for the team.”