The clock was ticking on not only another night of torment for Scotland but also their World Cup qualifying campaign and Gordon Strachan’s reign as manager. Eighty-seven minutes and 25 seconds of a must-win game against Slovenia had elapsed, the mood inside Hampden Park had turned ugly and the obituaries were being prepared. Then everything changed with a swing of Chris Martin’s left foot.
Strachan’s 20th competitive match in charge of Scotland was threatening to be his last, undeservedly so, when he summonsed the on-loan Fulham striker from the bench and withdrew James Morrison with eight minutes to go. The Hampden crowd was sparse but made its feelings clear by booing the switch. Then, with 155 seconds of normal time remaining, the hugely impressive debutant Stuart Armstrong picked a hole in the Slovenia defence and found Martin. His low left-foot strike bobbled beyond the static Jan Oblak, kissed the inside of the far post and rolled in.
The boos were a distant memory as Martin slid to his knees and absorbed a Hampden roar – relief all round and a campaign revived. This was pressure and Scotland did not succumb.
“Kenny Dalglish used to get booed here, Alan Hansen got booed, so did Gary McAllister. That’s a great club to be involved in,” said Strachan. “It was a sweet moment for Chris, the players and for anyone who wanted us to win. You have pressure games in your life and we didn’t hide from it.
“We knew how big it was. We told the truth and we dealt with it. It was a proud performance from us all.”
Considering the stakes and the opposition – Slovenia arrived in Glasgow boasting a seven-game unbeaten run and three successive clean sheets – this was a stirring response from Strachan’s side. It was also a familiar tale of bright, brave football being undermined by a procession of wasted chances until the manager’s third and final substitution delivered a crucial win. Victory took the Scots to within two points of second-placed Slovakia and ensured England’s arrival here in June will mean much more than a renewal of historic rivalry.
There was cohesion and determination to the Scotland performance from the very start with Strachan’s selection a contributory factor. Desperate to instil confidence and understanding in his team following a deflating start to qualifying, he started with six players who are strolling towards the league title unbeaten with Celtic.
That meant a switch from left- to right-back for Kieran Tierney, who expressed doubt over his ability on the right only recently but equipped himself expertly, and a full debut for Armstrong who excelled in the No10 role. “The best Scotland debut I’ve ever seen,” said Strachan.
The game was open, crammed with incident and opportunity, and Scotland’s performance will hearten Strachan for the challenges ahead. They were on their game from the first whistle. Russell Martin drew a fine save from the Atlético Madrid goalkeeper after 61 seconds with a volley from a Robert Snodgrass corner. He beat Oblak with a powerful header from Snodgrass’s next set piece only to be penalised for a push on Miral Samardzic. Tierney and Leigh Griffiths also went close during an absorbing opening.
Slovenia sprung to life only fleetingly – “We didn’t show anything in the first half,” lamented their coach, Srecko Katanec –and Scotland were sharper throughout the first period. Sharpness eluded them in front of goal, however, with Griffiths striking the woodwork twice in three minutes.
The Celtic striker was guilty of a glaring miss when Andrew Robertson released Snodgrass and the midfielder floated a delightful cross over Oblak. Griffiths was four yards out, unmarked and the goal was gaping. Yet he contrived to volley against the bar. Moments later he produced a fine low finish to steer a James Forrest cross beyond Oblak. The ball struck the inside of a post and rebounded to safety. They were chances a team in Scotland’s position could ill-afford to waste. Morrison, with a 20-yard drive just wide and a header cleared off the line by Valter Birsa, racked up the near-miss count.
Griffiths’ departure early in the second half with a back injury disrupted Scotland’s flow but they gradually regained control of the contest, though not their sights on target. Ikechi Anya replaced the tiring Snodgrass and found himself with only Oblak to beat within seconds. His first touch, after Forrest had squeezed the ball through the Slovenia rearguard, was tame and straight at the keeper from 12 yards. Fortunately for Scotland and Strachan, his next substitution would have a more telling impact. Hope flickers again.