Leigh Griffiths’ genius gave Scotland a glimpse of glory

Leigh Griffiths curls a wonderful free-kick past Joe Hart to give Scotland a 2-1 lead against England. Picture: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leigh Griffiths curls a wonderful free-kick past Joe Hart to give Scotland a 2-1 lead against England. Picture: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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And so still it burns. Stuart Armstrong had merely to successfully execute one last pass of a superb season. Andrew Robertson, who’s spent the campaign diligently pounding up and down the left flank for Hull City, needed to track back one final time.

After a season that was already imbued with a fairytale quality for him personally, Craig Gordon was required to make one last save at his near post. Alternatively, if he had only chosen to come out and grab the last cross he would be asked to deal with before taking a well-earned holiday...

Had just one of these things happened then Gordon Strachan would now be celebrating the best result of his managerial career, better, he later remarked, than Celtic’s wins over AC Milan and Manchester United.

Scotland would have more to cling to than just desperate hope in their on-going bid to qualify for the World Cup finals.

And Leigh Griffiths would have joined a pantheon of heroes in this particular fixture that includes Jim Baxter, Kenny Dalglish and Alex James.

But Griffiths would surely occupy a throne on a higher level. None of these others, legends though they are, conjured up two free-kicks in a matter of minutes to secure a World Cup victory over England at a sun-drenched Hampden Park.

Some things are not meant to be. Some things, it turns out, are a 
little too perfect to be true.

As when Archie Gemmill scored against the Netherlands 39 years ago yesterday, Griffiths’ genius and the rapturous scenes that followed both strikes must be framed by what is ultimate disappointment.

Regrets, Scotland have had a few.

Strachan’s side still languish in fourth place when ideally, they would be standing on ten points and provided with some wriggle room in their bid to reach Russia. Now it looks as though gaining maximum points from Scotland’s last four fixtures is imperative.

But yet nothing can extinguish the memory of a gilded two minutes in June, when suddenly, and briefly, everything seemed possible. Strachan later rated Griffiths’ two free-kicks as the best ever by a player in a Scotland jersey. Perhaps only Davie Cooper can have reason to raise a divine left foot in protest upon hearing this.

An English icon in David Beckham was evoked later by Strachan as he sought to make sense of what he’d just experienced by referencing the former England midfielder’s free-kick equaliser against Greece in 2001. The difference being 
Beckham’s goal that afternoon at Old Trafford got England to a World Cup. Griffiths’ first, meanwhile, merely offered hope, while his second, arguably better, effort stoked dreams into a burning flame.

“Beckham kept them going [that day],” said Strachan. “As I remember rightly, they didn’t have much going for them that day. To be able to do that when the whole world is watching you after running about is amazing.

“Some people can do it after 20 minutes when they’re fresh. For him [Griffiths] to dig out these 
two late on was incredible. I actually thought the second
one would go in as well, I 
really did.

“The work he put in in nicking back and getting people was impressive,” Strachan added. “I asked him to do that. The only problem was in the first half he stayed too far away from us when we got the ball back. Because of that we had to play longer passes.

“But we got that sorted out in the second-half. We didn’t see as many of those longer passes in the second-half as we did in the first half.”

Few worked harder than Strachan. Rarely can a manager have so obviously sought to coach a team through a game, certainly on the international stage, where it’s reasonable to assume game management skills on the part of players.

Normally it’s a cliché, but Strachan really did kick every ball, deliberately making himself conspicuous on the touchline, even if this did encourage visiting fans to bait him in song.

“When your team is up against it you have to be there and seen,” he said. “You can’t be sitting away when your team is under pressure, you have to be out there asking for more.”

He clearly felt responsible for their initial struggles, having imposed such an unfamiliar formation on them. Tierney one of three centre-halves? Robertson and Ikechi Anya as wing-backs? Admittedly playing Tierney out of position at right-back for a second successive international might have been 90 minutes too far for someone who only turned 20 last week. After all, England, now 35 games unbeaten 
in qualifiers, are not Slovenia.

Simply seeing the visitors line up to defend Griffiths’ free-kicks illustrated what physical specimens they are – “the tallest wall in Europe,” remarked Strachan, highlighting 
the scale of Griffiths’ achievement in getting the ball up and down twice from around 27 yards.

Tierney, mouth already bulging with a gum shield, had his discomfiture compounded by having to adapt to another new role. While he might have hesitated, crucially, at England’s opener from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, it was another brave, composed performance from the player, who attracted plenty of admiring comments from English observers.

But then there were few failures. Robert Snodgrass, perhaps, looked slightly heavy-legged and disgruntled. The midfielder, deployed on the right ahead of Anya, was engaged in running discussions with Strachan in the first half, while Armstrong, playing less centrally, was not quite the influence he’d been against Slovenia. Gordon, meanwhile, seemed unusually shaky throughout.

But even those out of form gave everything in effort. It was all Strachan had asked for pre-match.

There would, he predicted, be two or three players who wouldn’t reach the heights. In such instances, he said, their team-mates would require to dig them out of a hole. Griffiths certainly did this. But this being Scotland, there was still time to fall into another pothole.

What Harry Kane’s late, late equaliser means in terms of the road 
to Russia, only time – and possibly September’s away clash in Lithuania, where three points are non-negotiable – will tell. But for two wonderful minutes the Tartan Army experienced what it must feel like to lift the World Cup before, almost inevitably, Scotland let the trophy crash to the floor.