Gordon Strachan’s team can’t really lose
18 November ~ At Celtic Park tonight Scotland and England will play the occasion rather than the game. Sponsors Vauxhall have been pushing veterans of the world’s oldest international fixture in front of the media, spouting the “no friendlies between these two” line. Tickets were overpriced and sold slowly. The weekend’s Euro 2016 qualifiers seemed infinitely more important than a cross-border match-up of fringe players. By lunchtime yesterday, however, only 200 of the 60,000 tickets remained unsold. The contrasting reception for each side’s latest victory suddenly make this a match England need to win and Scotland can’t really lose.
It’s not just sociopathic wearers of casual clothing, currently being tracked by Police Scotland, who are looking for a battle in Glasgow. England manager Roy Hodgson’s midfield will regain possession with his “five-second fury” tactic. In Scotland’s midfield captain Scott Brown is a 94-minute fury all of his own. Apart from Shaun Maloney’s artfully crafted goal, pundits extolled the gruelling physicality of Scotland’s 1-0 Group D win over the Republic of Ireland. Yet they were indifferent to England’s win over Slovenia on Saturday precisely because it was so much easier. Southern hacks want to see England in a fight, preferably one they can win. Scotland apparently fit the bill.
Friday’s celtic derby was a thrillingly competitive spectacle given further credibility by the fact it left both sides level on points with Germany. However, it mostly featured middling Premier League and English Championship players. England might therefore believe they can enjoy tonight. Last August’s Wembley clash also saw Hodgson expose Scotland’s central-defensive frailty.
Yet Scottish clean sheets have piled up since that 3-2 loss in London. We’re scoring one and conceding nil at home in Group D while conceding exactly two away. This ratio will be slightly embarrassing against Gibraltar in our next qualifier, in March. But that Gordon Strachan has managed to reduce us to just one variable – how many we score on the road – is as praiseworthy as the epic context he established on Friday.
September’s narrow loss to the world champions in Dortmund was followed by October’s home victory over Georgia and a thrilling 2-2 draw in Warsaw. Yet Poland, and the Irish, began the group even more convincingly. Defeating Martin O’Neill’s side provided the Tartan Army with emotional payback for Italy’s 2-1 Hampden win the Euro 2008 qualifiers. This time a must-win game was won.
I don’t have a ticket for tonight. I thought I was objecting politically. My £40 seat for Friday’s match, which could help us towards our first finals in 18 years, costs £57 for England’s visit. I couldn’t stomach the thought that beating England meant more to Scotland than qualifying. But now I realise there’s no law against doing both.
Everton striker Steven Naismith, Watford winger Ikechi Anya and Celtic’s midfield pair of Brown and Charlie Mulgrew provide the axis of competence around which the revival has spun. But, whoever plays, Strachan has Scotland so slick and canny that even losing tonight will be regarded as getting a defeat out of our system in a meaningless friendly. Yet victory, over the auld enemy, would be an emotional crowning of our renaissance. It’s almost as if the SFA priced the tickets correctly. Alex Anderson