The biggest compliment that can be paid to Scotland is that they did not panic when the Republic of Ireland threatened to rip up their script. Only a draw was required from this clash for the same outcome from Tuesday’s meeting with Ukraine to see Steve Clarke’s men seal top spot in Group B1 of the Nations League. It is lost on nobody in these parts that the Scots would pass relegated England while en route to Group A.
Scotland fell a goal behind to Ireland, triggering the kind of nervousness which is natural for a supporter base who have known the darkest of times. New Scotland, though, means new attitudes; a composed second 45 minutes secured the win that earlier looked improbable. Scotland still need to avoid defeat in Krakow but they will fly to Poland in fine spirits.
“I knew eventually this game would come back to us,” said Clarke. “Ukraine now know they have to win on Tuesday so that can change their mentality.”
Ukraine’s victory in Armenia earlier in the day ended faint Irish hopes of topping this section. All that remained for Stephen Kenny and his team was to see whether they could puncture Scottish confidence for a second time. In June, Ireland breezed past the Scots at the Aviva Stadium.
Conscious of that wounding evening, Clarke opted against the batch of changes that may have been considered reasonable given a schedule of three matches in a week. Aaron Hickey, as expected, replaced the injured Nathan Patterson at right-back and Lyndon Dykes took the place of Che Adams in attack but Scotland otherwise retained the starting XI from Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Ukraine.
England’s struggles at international level had not gone unnoticed by the Tartan Army, as the atmosphere in the early stages illustrated. The expectant home support were briefly silenced by Troy Parrott, who lashed the ball into the roof of the net, before a belated – but correct – offside flag was raised. Scotland had been served with a warning. It was one they failed to heed.
Scott McTominay’s dalliance on the ball in midfield allowed Michael Obafemi to steal in. Obafemi fed Parrott, who watched his shot blocked by Jack Hendry. From the resultant James McClean corner, Dykes could only half clear. Jayson Molumby knocked it down towards John Egan, who slammed home from six yards.
It took close to half an hour for the Scots to threaten the Ireland goal. John McGinn, winning his 50th cap, should have stroked a Stuart Armstrong cross beyond Gavin Bazunu but instead miscued. This summed up Scotland’s tetchy state.
Clarke’s challenge was soon made even greater. Kieran Tierney landed awkwardly from an innocuous tussle with Parrott at a Scotland corner. The Arsenal defender looked keen to continue but Scotland’s medical staff had other ideas. A visibly distraught Tierney would play no further part in proceedings. Clarke said afterwards the move was “precautionary.” McTominay will certainly miss Tuesday night, through suspension.
The interval allowed Scotland to gather some composure. Within five minutes of the restart they were level. Ryan Christie displayed wonderful trickery on the left flank to leave Matt Doherty gasping for air. Christie’s floated cross was met by Hendry and the centre-back’s header bounced into the net via a post.
Scotland had Craig Gordon, their evergreen goalkeeper, to thank for Ireland not quickly regaining the lead. Callum McGregor cheaply coughed up possession as Scotland looked to attack, leaving Obafemi and Parrott rampaging towards Gordon. Obafemi played in his strike partner, who was denied by the 39-year-old. This had the look of a crucial moment. Gordon had left the Scotland camp late on Friday to attend the birth of his third child. “He came back, asked if he could be excused the lunchtime meeting and had a kip,” Clarke explained.
Given the competitive context, it was to Scotland’s credit that they opted to press for a winner. It arrived from the penalty spot, Alan Browne penalised for handball at a McGinn corner. Browne, a substitute, was adjudged to have blocked McTominay’s header. Kenny later branded the decision “contentious” and “very harsh” given his belief Browne was pushed. Christie strode forward to pass the ball beyond Bazunu. Scotland had been rewarded for patience. Yet again.