• On Saturday they showed character to turn things round against the Irish that mental strength will have to go up another notch in Poland. Footballing adversity has arrived with a vengeance.
• Some peculiar things have happened in this international window. Clarke has been positively jocular in his media conferences for a start.
For Scotland, this September sprint is now fast turning into a hurdle race. Already shorn of an amount of full-backs and centre-halves, Steve Clarke has now lost another one of each, with Kieran Tierney and Scott McKenna failing to make the trip to Krakow for Tuesday’s Nations League denouement with Ukraine.
Three of the back four that started against Ukraine less than a week ago have fallen, along with Scott McTominay who’s suspended. In need of a point to top the group, every fibre of this Scotland squad is now being tested. Clarke is going into this game without seven defenders, many of them frontliners. It’s utterly freakish.
On Saturday they showed character to turn things round against the Irish that mental strength will have to go up another notch in Poland. Footballing adversity has arrived with a vengeance.
They’ve met these challenges well so far. A 3-1 World Cup play-off loss to Ukraine was answered with a 3-0 victory over the same opposition last week. A 3-0 loss to the Republic in Dublin in June was met with a battling 2-1 win in the reverse fixture on Saturday night.
Scotland scored one and conceded six in those earlier matches and conceded one while scoring five in the last two. The bounce back has been impressive and loaded with storylines, the final one to be written in Krakow.
Jack Hendry was the one who kickstarted Scotland’s revival on Saturday, a centre-half who has played just 97 minutes of club football this season, for two different two different clubs in two different countries - Belgium and Italy.
If he feels unsettled in his day job then it would be understandable, but he was a rock when his country needed him against Ireland. His headed equaliser from a delicious cross by Ryan Christie was his third goal in his 19 caps. his namesake and fellow centre-half, Colin, scored the same number in 51.
Some peculiar things have happened in this international window. Clarke has been positively jocular in his media conferences for a start. Nobody saw that coming. Lyndon Dykes scored two goals in 13 minutes of a must-win game against Ukraine, which is more than he has scored in his last 26 hours playing for QPR. Explain that.
Craig Gordon had a sleepless night in hospital on Friday awaiting the happy arrival of his baby son, but was as bright as a button when making a critical save from Troy Parrott at 1-1 against Ireland. Gordon is 39 and yet ageless. Before the squad was announced, Scotland lost one full-back in the captain Andy Robertson. Against Ukraine they lost another when Nathan Patterson was stretchered off. On Saturday they lost a third in Tierney and a fourth in Aaron Hickey — and still grew stronger in the game.
Some sort of plague has descended on Scotland’s defenders, with Grant Hanley, John Souttar and Liam cooper also on the sidelines. The obvious answer to McKenna’s loss would have been McTominay moving back, but that option is not available. Hendry is the most experienced centre-half available. There could be a revisiting of three at the back as a consequence.
Clarke’s squad has shown a resilience. The Ukraine game last week was deeply frustrating for 70 minutes. All those chances and no breakthrough. At no point did they panic or lose heart. At no point did they look like they would become yet another entry to the list of suckers who got punished for failing to take their chances when they had them. Their belief remained, their intensity increased and they won going away.
Saturday was different. Ireland were excellent in the first half. They had the lead and deserved it. They had the better of midfield and had shut down all of Scotland’s go-to men. At the break, it looked dicey. Even on the restart, Clarke’s players gave the ball away cheaply three times in the opening few minutes. Hendry and Christie changed all of that.
Slowly but surely, Scotland’s midfield got on top. It was a win that was ground out. Hard fought. They were in a hole and they climbed out of it. If the Ukraine victory was about class, this was about character, about overcoming their own deficiencies on the night, about staying calm.
In the summer, Scotland went one-nil down in Dublin and folded. There was an entirely different mindset in adversity on Saturday. Clarke had every right to be thrilled. His players are getting more savvy.
Ukraine need no other motivation than playing for their people in a time of war, but they’ll have that extra edge regardless because of what Scotland did to them last week. They made 11 changes for Saturday’s 5-0 win against Armenia and some of the characters who put Scotland away in June reappeared from the start — Vitaliy Mykolenko, Viktor Tsygankov, Roman Yaremchuk.
So influential in the Hampden play-off, Oleksandr Zinchenko is still out injured. Still, you fancy that Ukraine on Tuesday will be an altogether different prospect to what we saw at in Glasgow last time around.
Clarke has a lot of thinking to do. If he’s to stick with a back four then who is the second centre-half? If it’s a three then it’s Hickey, Hendry and who else? Whatever way you cut it, it’s going to be callow. Kenny McLean is likely to be cast in the McTominay role.
Ryan Fraser’s energy could be a useful thing from the start. Three games in a week is a fair old physical burden for some of Clarke’s players and Stuart Armstrong, who has started just once in the league for Southampton this season, is one of them.
These are positive times for Scotland, but also anxious times. Only a single point is needed now to win the group, to achieve promotion to the Nations League A-listers next time and to take a play-off spot for Euro 2024. It’s a point that became harder with the hammer blow news of the loss of Tierney and McKenna. One game left, but so much riding on it.