For fans of a certain age, this had the look and feel of an old encounter with the Auld Enemy, when a bunch of scruffs did their darnedest to bring down the Admirals.
Just the date told us that: end-of-season, summer hols coming soon, the big blockbuster finale.
You wondered if, for old times’ sake, England were going to dig out their mothballed Admiral strips. If Harry Kane would don a bubble-perm wig in tribute to the prancing Kevin Keegan and Delle Ali fake sideboards as a homage to the swaggering Gerry Francis. And maybe those watching at home half-expected to hear the magisterial voice of David Coleman, building to a booming “One-nillll!”
And there was another distant echo for anyone who was young in the mid-1970s and particularly those who had armed forces recruitment bods visiting their school: the sight pre-match of the England team in camouflage combat-wear being drilled by a tough Marine sergeant.
The first thought looking at the pictures was one of concern for Adam Lallana’s baby-bottom-soft cheeks and Joe Hart’s bouncing hair, knowing them so well from the telly commercials. Gorse-rash is a nasty thing, and after sleeping on bivouac plastic in a forest the barnet can look terrible.
The second thought was: goodness me, are Gareth Southgate’s men going to stage one of those swift, brutal and chillingly decisive missions in which elite soldiers specialise, finally putting us out of our qualification misery?
Well, Scotland almost felled the old foes. They almost achieved a victory which would have knocked every other success against England into a comedy tammy. They were a couple of minutes away from Dreamland, via two stupendous free-kicks from Leigh Griffiths who will now spend all summer, and every summer after, wondering why he didn’t become one of the fixture’s absolute immortals like Alex James, Kenny Dalglish and, er, Mike Pejic.
Shorn of its primordial ferocity a long time ago, could Hampden still mildly intimidate and cause some multi-millionaire collywobbles? It’s not PC to say this but the booing of God Save the Queen was sensational. But so was the minute’s silence for the victims of the Manchester and London terrorist outrages.
Scott Brown, the veteran skinhead warrior, involved in maybe one last session of goading and growling at such a high level, tried to intimidate Alli as early as the second minute and was booked for a tackle from behind of the kind his manager Gordon Strachan admitted had been part of the “Get-intae-them” football with which the Scots used to triumph in this fixture.
But Scotland made a bright start, forced some corners and the Tartan Army enjoyed the sight of Chris Smalling of the world-famous Manchester United booting the ball over his own bar, then Gary Cahill, captain of the champions of “the Prem”, clearing skywards under no pressure. To stoke the small fire of pluck and hope the fans offered up a song. Unfortunately it was Do Re Mi. Four thousand Englishmen did not tremble.
Kane the galloping striker, who’d spoken of his modest England strike rate and had his throwaway remark about possibly scoring a hat-trick at Hampden pounced upon by the Offending Comments Watchdog and turned into a dressing-room poster, pulled down a ball with his right foot and caused a gasp among the home support, but the attempt with his left was pretty hopeless.
He had another chance 30 yards out when Craig Gordon was forced to clear with a header, but this time Kieran Tierney was on the line to clear.
It was the last game of a season in which English voices had trashed Scottish football. It was probably going to be the last game of Strachan’s tenure if Scotland lost, a battle of wits between two ex-Middlesbrough bosses with the wee man unfortunately denied the services of great Ayresome Scots like Graeme Souness and, even in his latter years, Bobby Murdoch. It was the perfect time, then, for a victory which would be remembered as long as those when Keegan strutted and Coleman described.
Though it wasn’t exactly clear how Scotland were going to score, the home fans cheered every throw-in awarded their team, every big hoof in the vague direction of Griffiths, every skirmish with a Dark Blue outcome.
After the break, though, a goal seemed tantalisingly possible. Some decent momentum was achieved down the left through Tierney, Stuart Armstrong and Andy Robertson before the latter was afforded the first glimpse of the English posts, his shot sailing over them. Then Armstrong had a go: same outcome. But the crowd were encouraged. England were discomfited for a while and Southgate had to leave his seat and start pacing around.
The unease didn’t last. There was some uncertainty in the Scotland defence, a little warning, and in the next minute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain capitalised, Gordon seeming to attempt to punch away his shot with the wrong hand, to no avail.
We wondered about the impact of politics of the game. Would there be crowd reaction to the election? During the 2014 Celtic Park friendly just after indyref, England fans sung “F*** off Scotland, we’re voting Yes.” This was a mere warm-up for sustained, odious chanting of “F*** the IRA” and England’s FA had to phone the oompah band in the stands to request they kill the musical accompaniment.
This time, though, there was nothing quite so offensive, although “There’ll be no Tartan Army in Moscow” was pretty hard to take, as was “You’re just a s*** San Marino”. That angered the home fans who retaliated with the Viking war chant of Iceland, England’s conquerors in the Euros.
But Griffiths had something better down his sock. The left foot with which he whipped one, then – fantastically – two free-kicks past the flailing Hart and his tremendous hair. Scotland couldn’t, could they? No, Kane saw to that. And the chorus of “Two-one and you f***** it up” was cruel beyond belief.