The prospects of endings nipped the Hampden air as much as the autumnal temperatures last night.
There was the prospect that the old stadium, that doesn’t wear its age so well these days, was playing host to its last World Cup qualifier. By extension, there was the possibility that the craggy features of Gordon Strachan, pictured, a man who otherwise doesn’t betray the advancement of his years, would be creasing while watching on in the arena as Scotland manager for the last time.
The fact that the game ended with a lump-in-the-throat rendition of Flower Of Scotland as the stadium sought to serenade their team through the final seconds following an impossibly dramatic last-gasp own goal by Martin Skrtel told that there was life in the two old dogs – Hampden and Strachan – yet.
Whatever the flaws and failings of both, the pair may yet have the World Cup warm-up games that are craved, with Scotland requiring to win in Slovenia on Sunday to give them the hope of the play-off that would be the final step on the way to that.
The possibility of not just any endings, but happy ones lives on for Hampden’s World Cup relationship. Even with the SFA’s lease for the ground up in 2020 and doubts now being expressed about the decision over the renewal, which will be made in June.
Hampden, with its cavernous bowl and shallow slopes that were designed for standing, hasn’t known qualifying success since the £52 million redevelopment that involved bolting seats on to three sides was completed with the construction of a new main stand that opened in 1999.
Of course it must be just coincidence that Hampden in its current form has never witnessed a Scotland team earning a victory that propelled it to a major finals. It can just feel sometimes that the Mount Florida stadium is a mausoleum to international fortunes. It did before Skrtel, under pressure from Chris Martin, inadvertently turned the ball into his own net in the 89th minute with Slovakia’s reduction to ten men 66 minutes earlier seeming as if it would only give way to the familiar hard-luck story, with the woodwork twice struck and typical goalkeeping heroics for the visitors.
Maybe Hampden has had enough of such ill-fortune and wants an end to the fact that the last time Scotland did qualify for a major finals they did so at Celtic Park. A stadium which, as the largest and most lauded in the country, would be their de facto home for occasions such as last night’s must-win encounter.
The atmosphere at Hampden for the pre-match Flower Of Scotland was raucous, the anthem sung with gusto by a crowd who had sent the decibel level off the scale when Leigh Griffiths curled in his two free-kicks against England. It is a stadium that can still rouse itself when special moments spark it to life. Yet, for all the history that makes decanting from it unthinkable to traditionalists, it can also feel too long in the tooth, too tired to make things happen, to move with the times. Strachan’s team staved off that being a metaphor for his tenure, and the national manager deserves credit for that. He brought on Martin to light the touchpaper and send Hampden aflame in song.
SFA chief executive Stewart Regan has said remaining at Hampden, with a new 20-year lease, would be the governing body’s “preferred” option, while clubs are understood to be concerned about the cost of its upkeep. No doubt Regan would prefer not to have to be in the hunt for a new manager but sometimes things come to their natural end.
It could be argued that is true of maintaining a huge stadium that may only be near its capacity for a handful of occasions a year. The SFA is writing to all clubs asking where they go from here with Hampden after 2020 and the answer from some might be along the lines of “come to us”.
The most successful football nations in the world have long since considered the concept of a national football stadium outmoded. If it is good enough for Germany, Spain and Italy to move their internationals and neutral cup ties round their countries then, surely, it could be argued that it should not be above Scotland.
Celtic Park, Ibrox, Murrayfield, Easter Road, Tynecastle and Pittodrie – or the new stadium Aberdeen hope to build – provide a decent spread. It ain’t over, though, when the battered old lady can still end a night in song.