Scotland: And the award for best feel-good football moment of year goes to ...
Stephen O’Donnell artfully clips the ball towards Lyndon Dykes, whose first-time shot secures the latest win for Scotland in a seven-match unbeaten run.
At the back, Andrew Considine and Declan Gallagher join Scott McTominay in shutting out opposition ranked 13 places higher. It is Scotland’s second consecutive clean sheet.
We live in strange times. The new normal is a phrase that has become so commonplace it no longer carries any charge. And yet it’s still hard to fathom what took place against Slovakia on Sunday night as an unlikely cast of characters helped Scotland secure a victory that maintains momentum under Steve Clarke. Having been shaken awake by the play-off semi-final penalty shoot-out victory over Israel four nights earlier, a country is sitting up and taking notice.
What on earth is Clarke managing to do here? What weird alchemy is this? Just a few short weeks ago, as Scotland stumbled to a draw against Israel in their opening Nations League Group B2 fixture, he was being accused of a variety of crimes against football.
Taking the acclaim
Now Clarke is being lauded for his part in delivering perhaps the most feel-good moment in Scottish football this year. Have you seen that post-match interview with Considine on Sky Sports yet? It should be played on loop at future Scotland camps. This is what it means to play for Scotland. Its message is inspiring: don’t give up on the international dream even if you are nearer 34 than 33 and have played consistently well in over 500 games for your club without recognition at international level.
Managing Scotland can be a bind. No one needs to tell Clarke that. But what a thrill, what a privilege, it must have been to be able to pick up the phone last week to see if Considine was available to help out after Liam Cooper sustained an injury against Israel. Considine being Considine, of course he was. And Considine being Considine, he stepped into the starting line-up against Slovakia with the minimum of fuss. He made the most interceptions – five – of anyone in the entire match. He completed 43 out of 51 passes.
Whirlwind few days for Considine
The only regret was that in this Covid-19 era, none of his family or friends, including those from that interesting stag do film from a few years ago, were able to witness the occasion live. Still, they were able to view live that emotional interview afterwards.
“I suppose it’s just always believing one day you would maybe get the call,” said Considine, having barely put a foot wrong. He admitted the call-up had come "completely out of the blue".
There was a further surprise when he learned he would be starting the game. As Clarke said afterwards: “At 33 years of age, his first international squad, he probably thought he was coming in as cover for someone.”
Indeed, after waiting over 15 years to make his debut, Considine may well find he gains two caps in four days. There’s little reason to drop the Aberdeen defender ahead of tomorrow night’s clash with Czech Republic, when the top team in the group hosts the second-placed team. It is a doubly significant game as Scotland prepare for one last run-out before next month’s play-off final against Serbia.
A steady arc of progress
Somehow Clarke is making this work. Somehow, in a strange era where international football is struggling to seem relevant, his side are managing to make a fist of things. Typical. Trust Scotland to edge as close to a major finals as they have been in 13 years and no-one is being allowed in to see it.
In truth, it might represent a small mercy that this slow, steady progress is being conducted behind closed doors. No-one expected swashbuckling when Clarke was confirmed as Alex McLeish’s replacement. He did not promise it either.
What his appointment did entitle fans to expect was organisation, some defensive nous and a steady arc of progress. He’s delivered all this as well as a new system, one which seems to work no matter the identity of the player filling the position. Liam Cooper came in for Kieran Tierney against Czech Republic and Israel and then Considine came in for Cooper on the left-side of a three-man defence. Now Hibs’ Paul Hanlon has been recruited to replace Cooper, who has returned to Leeds United.
‘We are doing something right’
Gallagher has proved outstanding at middle centre-back - a position of particular responsibility. Consdine mentioned how his younger colleague next to him had helped by talking him through his debut. Players from a mid-ranking Scottish Premiership club like Motherwell are proving as important as those from the English Premier League.
“I know everybody will say we only had one shot on target again,” said Clarke, somewhat wearily. “We proved that one shot on target is enough if you keep a clean-sheet.
“Obviously we would like to have more shots on target, we would like to have more goals. But if you look over the last two games it’s one shot on target in two games and we’ve qualified for a play-off final and picked up three points. We are doing something right.”
Keeping faith in O’Donnell
Clarke is no-one’s patsy. Don’t fancy O’Donnell playing right wing-back? Tough. “At this level we are used to being much maligned,” observed Clarke. “That is whether you manage or coach or play for the national team.
“You know that everybody has an opinion,” he added. “But I know Stephen very well from my time at Kilmarnock. I know what he can give and I thought his delivery for the (winning) goal was fantastic.
“Everybody gets mixed reviews,” he added, when the subject of O’Donnell’s many critics came up. “Sometimes you get praise, sometimes you get criticised. it’s part and parcel of being involved in football. I have no worries over Stephen.”
Increasingly, there are fewer fears about Clarke’s Scotland. Perhaps there should never have been any.
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