During his first spell as Scotland manager, Alex McLeish handed out debuts to just six players throughout the course of his ten games in charge.
On his return to the post last night, he used five debutants in his first 90 minutes but the new faces couldn’t prevent the re-run of an old story from unfolding against Costa Rica.
When McLeish inherited the post from Walter Smith back in 2007, there was an element of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ as he built on the solid remedial work undertaken by his predecessor and largely stuck to the same group of players as he came so close to qualification for the Euro 2008 finals.
This time around, McLeish clearly feels there is a greater need to put his own stamp on the squad and freshen it up with new faces capable of playing a significant part in the bid to ensure Scotland are not on the outside looking in when Hampden plays co-host to the 2020 European Championship.
That was the message he sent by leaving out a plethora of experienced players, including Darren Fletcher, Christophe Berra, James McArthur and Robert Snodgrass.
Four of those winning their first caps against Costa Rica did so as part of the starting line-up. Scott McKenna followed in McLeish’s footsteps by making his senior Scotland debut at the age of 21, the Aberdeen player joining Grant Hanley and captain for the night Charlie Mulgrew in a three-man central defence.
Two players at opposite ends of their career were in central midfield. Scott McTominay, the 21-year-old from Manchester United whose commitment to Scotland has been hailed as a major coup for McLeish, was joined by 29-year-old Fulham man Kevin McDonald who has had to exercise great patience before finally being handed the chance to prove what he can do at international level.
The central striking berth went to Oli McBurnie, the 21-year-old Swansea City striker’s reward for his eye-catching form in his current loan spell at Barnsley.
McBurnie was the pick of the bunch as far as the new boys were concerned, his slightly dishevelled appearance matched by a nuisance value which provided some moments of concern for the visitors’ defence.
After the Scots had paid for a sluggish start to the match with the concession of Marcos Urena’s 14th-minute goal, it was McBurnie’s persistence which forced the corner from which Callum Paterson should have provided a rapid equaliser, only to steer his close-range header wide.
McTominay and McDonald were both neat and tidy on the ball but were seeing far less of it than McLeish would have liked as Costa Rica dominated possession.
On an evening when the crowd’s default setting was ‘subdued’, the onus was on the Scotland players to inject some vitality into the occasion. No-one tried harder to oblige than McBurnie who raised a chorus of approving voices when he bustled his way in from the left and unleashed a shot which forced a sharp save from Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
Opportunities for McTominay to make a positive first impression were more limited. Such is the high regard he is held in by Jose Mourinho, the Manchester United manager made the trip to Hampden to watch his debut. If nothing else, Mourinho would have appreciated the defensive diligence his rangy player showed when he tracked back to clear a dangerous cross from Cristian Gamboa.
McKenna, operating on the left of Scotland’s three at the back, generally looked at ease and also had the confidence to join the attack. As Scotland tried to raise the tempo of their play at the start of the second half, he thundered down the flank and whipped in a cross which was just a fraction too strong for Matt Ritchie.
McTominay’s evening was curtailed just before the hour mark when he was replaced by Stuart Armstrong, the man whose Scotland debut against Slovenia a year ago was described at the time by Strachan as the best he had ever seen. That kind of praise couldn’t be applied to McTominay’s first outing but he received a round of polite applause as he left the field and the potential remains for him to make a telling contribution to the Scotland cause in the years ahead.
The slightly louder ovation afforded to McBurnie when he made way for Matt Phillips in the closing stages was an expression of gratitude for his tireless efforts.
McLeish dished out his fifth debut of the night with three minutes left, on-loan Rangers forward Jamie Murphy replacing Ritchie, but Costa Rica would not be denied a repeat of the 1-0 victory inflicted on Scotland back at Italia 90.