Scotland's powers of recovery bring back Hampden roar

Given the great man was in the house it might seem appropriate to reprise that old line of Sir Alex Ferguson’s after Manchester United’s back-from-the-dead victory in the 1999 Champions League final.

‘Bloody hell’ wouldn’t quite cover it, though. Not after this Hampden epic. The release of pent-up Scottish-ness when Scott McTominay scored the winner was awesome to behold. It was even too much for Steve Clarke.

The Scotland manager can give the impression of being the type of character who smiles first thing every morning, just to get it over with, but once it became 3-2 he was as giddy as the giddiest one at Hampden.

The deadpan routine (he’s actually got a deliciously dry sense of humour, but doesn’t necessarily want it advertised) went out the window as he galloped away up the touchline in a moment of pure euphoria. When Clarke is losing the run of himself (if only momentarily) then you know that something special happened on Saturday night.


Scotland get up off the canvas


Before that last-gasp drama there was a sense of fatalism about all of this. At 2-2, with the clock an unstoppable enemy, there were flashbacks. There is a law of gravity, just for football, with particular relevance to the Scotland team. Home and away wins against France back in the day only for that campaign to hit the rocks against Georgia.

Leigh Griffiths’ two wonder free-kicks to set up victory against England only for Harry Kane to ruin it all at the end. Every Scotland fan in long trousers knows the deal. There’s a ton of sob stories.

So, what went up against Austria away must come down against Israel at home. It’s the kind of footballing physics that ages Scotland supporters beyond their years. And that was how it was looking with little time left. Only this time, there was the ‘Eureka!’ moment in the endgame, a glorious change in the script.

To borrow imagery from the fight game after Tyson Fury’s win against Deontay Wilder, Scotland were on the canvas so many times on Saturday that it’s a tribute to their resilience they won out.

They were on the floor after Jack Hendry’s rash challenge created the opportunity for Eran Zahavi to whip in a wondrous opening goal. They were on the floor again when McTominay needlessly gave away a free-kick and his defence singularly failed to deal with the delivery that followed. That made it 2-1.

Scotland were all over the place. No accuracy in their passing, no composure, no organisation in a back three that looked spooked. They had a massive home crowd with them, but there were was a nightmare unfolding.

Down on the canvas they went again just before the break when Lyndon Dykes missed a penalty. What was it about Dykes’ penalty-taking that made Ofir Marciano stand his ground and make an easy save as the striker attempted to drill it down the middle?

Was it the penalty that Dykes put down the middle against Austria last month? Or the one he put down the middle for QPR against Rotherham last November? Or the one he put down the middle against Coventry last September?

Or the two he put down the middle for Livingston against Motherwell and Hibs last August? He scored every single one of those, but there was always going to be a time when somebody would call his bluff and Marciano was the man who did it.

Trailing 2-1, with a missed penalty in their locker and a million errors all around the pitch, this was not the night that everybody signed up for. This was supposed to be part one of a three-match winning sequence that would take Scotland into the rarefied air of a place in the play-offs for the World Cup with a game to spare.


Familiar script


This was supposed to be a continuation of Scotland’s new confidence after that terrific win in Vienna, a game that didn’t just bring the fans back for a first full house at Hampden in four years but one that was supposed to make sure they’d see enough good stuff to bring them all back the next time and the time after that.

A half-time deficit wasn’t cutting it, but the drama was only really just beginning at that point. Quite why it took Scotland 45 minutes to start the engine and get going is a question Clarke is going to want an answer to, but there was a lot to admire in the way they hauled themselves back into the fight.

They had to overcome not just Israel but their own deficiencies on the night. The fact that they dug it out and won was a testament to their heart more than anything else. Even after the redoubtable Dykes – unfazed by a penalty miss – levelled it early in the new half there were other blows to contend with.

Within a handful of minutes they were almost behind again. It was approaching the hour-mark when Zahavi, in all the space he could have possibly wanted, headed straight at Craig Gordon. It was a colossal moment and a gargantuan miss from a player who is normally about as forgiving as the Grim Reaper.

Seven goals in seven games in Group F, 26 goals in his last 28 games for his country – over the last three years of international football only Cristiano Ronaldo has been banging them in on a more freakishly consistent basis than Zahavi.

But now he’s missed a sitter and there’s a completely bewildered look on his face, as if he can’t quite believe what has just happened to him. And maybe that uncertainty spread because from that point on Israel only existed as a team on the ropes, desperately soaking up Scotland’s pressure and all the time hoping to hang on for a draw.

Just after the hour, Dykes missed a big chance. With a minute of normal time to go, John McGinn missed another. We started thinking about what all of this would mean to the table and part of that was the rebranding of that final group game against Denmark from one that wouldn’t have mattered had Scotland won the previous three to one that could matter quite a lot if they faltered in the here and now against Israel.


‘Hampden roar still ringing in the ears’


That was a sobering thought. The rain fell and the last minutes drifted by and you steeled yourself for the deflation, for the all-too-familiar flatness to descend.

But there’s Dykes, chasing down defenders and winning a corner, in the manner of a guy who has banished to the outer recesses of his mind his missed penalty and his sitter spurned. There’s McGinn’s excellent delivery mere minutes after he wasted a spectacular opportunity to spare us all this torment.

There’s Hendry, who was on the charge sheet for the first Israel goal, getting a flick-on and there’s McTominay, who was in the frame for the second Israel goal, getting it across the line for the winner.

The fans sang Baccara but Bob Marley’s Redemption Song wouldn’t have been out of place. After that, some Thin Lizzy wouldn’t have gone amiss. A good ol’ blast of Jailbreak would have done the job.

The truth is, though, that it was perfect as it was. The noise was riotous. The ground under your feet literally shook from all the jumping about the fans were doing. They were immense, all 50,000. Young and old came together in a display of blissful pandemonium.

On Tuesday, it’s the Faroe Islands away. More sedate and, hopefully, easier on the ticker. Clarke might be tempted to change his team, in part to utilise a squad he has huge faith in and in other part to rest some of the players who will have needed a proper lie down on Saturday night.

This was exhausting stuff. And outrageous fun to boot. The Hampden Roar has returned – and it’s still ringing in the ears.

Original article published 10.10.21 on the BBC website.

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