SCOTLAND under Steve Clarke have become unrecognisable. In Krakow, as they secured a monumental result against Ukraine to top their Nations League group, that unfamiliarity ran through the personnel on show, the calm composure they showed on the ball, right through to the white shirts on their backs.
And where it was clearer than ever was in their mentality, and the resolve they showed in comparison to so many teams that preceded them over the past two decades.
It seems that no matter the men that Clarke calls upon – and he had to dig deep into his personal rolodex here with so many mainstays missing through injury and suspension – Scotland are now able to grind out results when their backs are to the wall. And after the disappointment of the World Cup play-off semi-final against this same opposition, they have now shown they can do it when it really matters too.
Right at the heart of the defence was where Clarke had his biggest call to make from the men he had left standing, with the experience of Declan Gallagher – so impressive in the European Championship play-off final against Serbia – drafted into the squad last week.
He instead decided to go with a man from his original squad, handing a debut to Hibernian centre-back Ryan Porteous.
Any doubts over Porteous’s suitability for football at this level invariably centre upon his temperament, rather than his talent. Too often at club level, in matches of lesser magnitude than this, the 23-year-old seems to be too keen to get involved with the dark arts rather than focusing on the art of defending.
Aberdeen manager Jim Goodwin was just the latest to call Porteous out on his off-the-ball antics, going as far as to label Porteous as a cheat after he won a penalty against the Dons at Easter Road. So, whether he had the maturity to make his Scotland debut on such a high-stakes occasion was a point of major doubt when the teamsheets landed, and whether he had it in him to repay the faith that Clarke had placed in him.
He did. And then some.
The Hibs man was nothing short of outstanding as part of a defence that were barely acquainted with one another in theory, but looked a superbly well-drilled unit in practice.
On a personal level, Porteous did his work in exemplary fashion. He read the game brilliantly, stepping in to intercept passes on numerous occasions, particularly in the first half.
As the game wore on and Scotland retreated ever deeper, he stood his ground to contest high balls and defend the area in front of Craig Gordon. Incidentally, whenever that rear-guard was breached, the evergreen Hearts goalkeeper was there to bail them out, as he always seems to be.
On a collective level, Porteous slotted into a backline that got their communication spot on. It was a combination of that understanding of one another’s positioning as well as the rather unsophisticated movement of Ukrainian striker Artem Dovbyk that had the Scottish offside trap resembling one that George Graham might have constructed in his pomp with Arsenal.
Time and time again the Scots held a brilliantly disciplined line, with the rather uncultured Dovbyk repeatedly taking the bait with both the hunger and apparent memory of a goldfish.
What helped the Scottish defence too, certainly in the first half, was the ability of the players higher up the pitch to hold onto the ball for long spells. Then, when it became harder and harder for Scotland to retain it, particularly at the top end of the field, they kept their discipline at the other end.
There were of course the odd moments of alarm. Any Scotland performance has them, and the only wonder here was that they weren’t more frequent, given the threadbare nature of a squad playing their third game of the week.
Thankfully, the Ukrainians were also leg weary, and their finishing looked tired whenever they did break through.
In the first half, Andriy Yarmolenko was the worst offender, volleying over from point-blank range after a great ball from Mykhaylo Mudryk. Gordon then made a brilliant save on the one occasion that Dovbyk broke the offside trap.
In the second half, there was a massive let-off when substitute Stuart Armstrong hesitated under an Arron Hickey header, with Taras Stepanenko volleying just wide from a wonderful position.
Then, right at the end, the ball broke for Oleksandr Zubkov amid a stramash in the area, and just as he looked to pull the trigger, a Scottish leg appeared from nowhere to hook the ball away. It belonged, of course, to Porteous.
Love him or loathe him at club level, he was the toast of the Tartan Army in Krakow after a towering display. Here, it can be said for certain, that he absolutely didn’t cheat anybody.