It turned out to be as much of a just-won game as the must-win contest of its advance billing, but the significance of Scotland’s World Cup qualifying victory over Slovenia was much more than that of a late and scurried success.
The most obvious consequence is that – in contrast to the swathes of empty seats visible at Hampden on Sunday night – the stadium will be heaving for the visit of England on June 10.
Scotland’s chances of reaching the finals in Russia next year remain frail and Group F looks ominously like the one section which will not yield a play-off place to the team which finishes second. That said, Chris Martin’s 88th minute strike and the collection of all three points keeps the Scots in the mix, at least for the moment.
Gordon Strachan has other reasons to be cheerful, aside from keeping his job until the end of the season at least. Prior to the Slovenians’ visit, Scotland had kept only one clean sheet in 10 competitive matches and that was a dead rubber against Gibraltar in Faro at the end of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
Slovenia’s defeat ended a run of seven game unbeaten – including the goalless draw with England in Ljubliana on October 11 – one short of their best run, established in 2001. Strachan’s players, meanwhile, have lost only once in their eight most recent qualifiers at home, when Germany, the world champions, left Hampden with a 3-2 win in September 2015.
All of those statistics would have been as valid had Scotland’s success against Slovenia been an example of a scrappy performance saved by a late goal, but that was not the case on Sunday which, until Martin’s 88th minute intervention, looked like being an extension of the Scots’ well established difficulty in converting outfield commerce into the hard currency of goals.
The match data was unambiguous. Scotland enjoyed 60% of possession, had 16 shots to the Slovenians’ four, while the ratio of efforts on target favoured Strachan’s men 6-1, as did the corner kick count of 9-1. In terms of drama on the field of play and frustration amongst the ranks of the Tartan Army, this was rendered as a Russell Martin goal disallowed in debatable circumstances, shots from Leigh Griffiths which rebounded from crossbar and post within 90 seconds of each other, as well as efforts stopped on the Slovenian line or clawed away from it.
Much has been made of the jeers which greeted Martin’s arrival, in place of the tiring James Morrison in the 82nd minute and it has been the fate of the Fulham striker, on loan from Derby, not to have found favour with the Scottish support. Strachan, though, has proclaimed faith in Martin’s ability periodically and, once again, the stats reinforced the manager’s judgement.
He and Leigh Griffiths have similar records for the season – Martin with 14 goals from 39 appearances from club and country and Griffiths with 14 from 35 – but if a comparison is drawn between the pair at international level, Martin has yielded three goals from 11 outings, while the Celtic striker has yet to score from the same number of games.
Of course, but for better judgment at his first clear chance – when a header on target would almost certainly have found the net – and a fraction more accuracy at his second, which thudded off the base of the post, Griffiths might have been celebrating a double or better. That said, he had long since departed because of a back injury when the time came for Strachan to throw his dice for the last time.
The crowd’s annoyance at the decision to send on Martin, to judge by some of the catcalls, was fuelled by their belief that Steven Fletcher was the better option. Yet Fletcher last scoffed for Sheffield Wednesday on December 17, while Martin found the mark for Fulham as recently as March 4.
In the event, it came down to the finest of margins. Like Griffiths, Martin also hit the post, but he was favoured by a rebound across the line. Asked how he felt about the crowd’s reaction to his appearance, Martin declared he had not noticed anything amiss.
“I was only made aware of it after the game,” he said. “I didn’t know that had been the reception when I came on. I was just focussed on trying to help the boys out and to get the goal which we deserved for our play throughout the game.
“I was just delighted for the lads and for the manager, too. He has shown faith in me through the last couple of campaigns and it was great just to get some reward for the hard work we put in, not only during the game but also through the campaign so far.”