With 92 minutes and 20 seconds on the clock, Stuart Armstrong was presented with options at Hampden on Saturday evening. The one he chose to take may haunt Scottish football’s collective psyche for some time to come.
As the National Stadium continued to reverberate to the delirious celebrations prompted by Leigh Griffiths’ extraordinary free-kick double which had turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead for Scotland, the World Cup qualifier ticked into stoppage time. When Eric Dier’s free-kick was scrambled clear by the hosts, England looked certain to suffer their first defeat in a qualifying match for eight years.
Armstrong carried the ball away from the Scots’ penalty area, with passes to Chris Martin on his left or Griffiths on his right available for the counter-attack. Alternatively, the Celtic midfielder could simply have booted the ball out of play to run down a few more precious seconds.
He elected to try and find Griffiths, with his slack attempt intercepted by Kyle Walker. The rest is now painfully etched on the memory of every Scotland supporter, the Spurs full-back finding Raheem Sterling, pictured, who delivered the cross from which Harry Kane plundered England’s dramatic equaliser. It was an agonising end to what has been a magnificent season for Armstrong and he admitted to fatigue and flawed judgment as he reflected upon the fateful moment.
“You make decisions in games,” he said. “It was really late on and, honestly, tiredness comes into play. I’ve seen Griff make a run and it was a poor pass.
“So, in hindsight, I should probably just have shelled it into row Z. A number of things have to happen for a goal to be conceded but I probably should have just cleared the ball.
“You can never tell what phase of play is going to lead to what. It’s just one of those things. When I saw the ball hit the net, my feelings were honestly just total disappointment. We were so close to three points. To end up with just one point, it’s just hard to take.
“The emotions of the game, being 1-0 down and then Griff hitting two unbelievable goals to get us back in the lead with so little time remaining – it’s hard to know what to say. To concede that second goal was disappointing, to say the least.”
Like the rest of the Scotland camp, Armstrong did his best to try and rationalise the consequences of an outcome which leaves their hopes of World Cup qualification hanging by the thinnest of threads. “It was still a draw with a good team,” he added. “It says a lot about where we are, how far we’ve come, that we we’re disappointed with a point against England. There is certainly a lot to build on and a lot of confidence to take into the next game.
“Can we win our last four games in the group? I don’t see why not. We’ve hopefully given the fans that belief that we can do it. It means so much when they are behind us, as well. It gives us the extra impetus to take something from the game.”
Amid his overall sense of disappointment, Armstrong was delighted to see his Celtic team-mate Griffiths break his scoring duck for Scotland in his 13th outing for his country.
“Leigh has proven himself at club level that he can score goals, there’s never been any doubt about that,” said Armstrong.
“It was always only a matter of time before he scored his first Scotland goals. Now that he has his first two, he’ll kick on. He did really well even apart from his goals. He provided a lot of help to the midfield, coming back and making interceptions, winning fouls and giving us a breather. His all-round play was terrific.
“I certainly wasn’t surprised by Leigh’s goals. I think everyone in Scotland has seen his finishing ability and his skill with the dead ball, as well. I was stood right with him for the free-kicks, so I had the perfect view of both goals. They were two excellent finishes. More impressive is the fact that they came in a really high-pressure situation, in a really high-pressure game. For the second, I knew he was going to stick it to the other side of Joe Hart.
“I knew his confidence was going to be so high after the first one that I wasn’t even going to offer to take it! He stepped up brilliantly. To do it in a big game is amazing. To do it twice in such a pressurised situation is brilliant – he should be very proud of himself.
“The first half was difficult, no doubt. England had a lot of possession in both halves, so there was a lot of work put in just closing down space and helping each other out. But it worked for a long time. We denied them space, we kept them out.
“We then had to change things up a bit. Chris Martin coming made a difference, but it just wasn’t to be in the end.”