Only ten months ago, Gordon Strachan appeared to be questioning Leigh Griffiths’ international credentials, suggesting his lack of inches counted against him when it came to pulling on a Scotland jersey.
Griffiths reacted to the national coach’s claim that his team didn’t have enough height – although his own 5ft 6in frame didn’t prevent him representing his country 50 times – by changing his Twitter username to “Shorty”.
The Celtic striker, in fact, stands three inches taller but, unlike Strachan, a midfielder, height probably does matter that little bit more when you are in the frontline, England’s centre backs in Saturday’s 2-2 draw, Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill, both towering over him at almost 6ft 4in.
Griffiths, however, epitomised that old Scotland saying that “good things come in small packages”, giving the pair from Manchester United and Chelsea an uncomfortable afternoon with his movement, his willingness to run the channels and determination not to allow them time on the ball.
It was an exhausting and thankless performance for the former Hibs forward, asked to take on the role of lone striker against a defence which hadn’t lost a goal in their previous five World Cup qualifying matches, a record which stretched to 902 minutes, before Griffiths finally got his reward.
As ex-Hibs boss John Collins questioned afterwards, had England and goalkeeper Joe Hart in particular done their homework on a player still awaiting his first Scotland goal in this his 13th appearance? Griffiths delivered two exquisite free-kicks, as everyone this side of the Border knows he can, to put Strachan’s side on the brink of a historic victory.
Hart looked out of position as Griffiths, left-footed as ever, stepped up to curl in an 86th-minute equaliser after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had given Gareth Southgate’s a not unexpected lead. And Hart again appeared at fault as Griffiths repeated the trick, this time putting the ball to his right rather than left as he had three minutes earlier, Southgate adamant that while he’d take a second look at what had gone wrong from his point of view, no-one could take away from the quality of both strikes.
Oxlade-Chamberlain agreed, saying: “Joe is very good at saving free-kicks, but they were magnificent. I was in the wall for both and as soon as he hit them I thought: ‘We are in trouble here’.
“I don’t think any keeper could have stopped them. Free-kicks are so difficult to score from, to do it twice in those circumstances was pretty incredible.”
At that point, Scotland looked not only on track to record their first win over England since 1999 and the first at Hampden since 1985 but to have changed the landscape of qualifying Group F, at least in terms of the runners-up spot, that win against Slovenia in March having breathed new life into their campaign.
But, from having walked with his head in the clouds, Griffiths and his team-mates dropped to their knees in agony as Spurs’ Harry Kane, England skipper for the day, stole in behind Charlie Mulgrew to knock home Raheem Sterling’s cross.
Kane had talked of a hat-trick in the days before the game and, with most expecting England, 3-0 winners over Scotland at Wembley in November, to steamroller Strachan’s players, you wouldn’t have been surprised if a few had backed a player who scored five such trebles in notching 35 goals in just 39 appearance for his club to do just that. But having claimed that equaliser three minutes into added-on time, Kane admitted he was happy enough to just have one to his name.
He said: “It was a crazy ending. We are 1-0 up and suddenly 2-1 down and staring at defeat. But we showed unbelievable character to get the second goal.”
Just as Hart was questioned for the goals he conceded so, too, was Scotland goalkeeper Craig Gordon who’d only managed to palm Oxlade-Chamberlain’s opener which, admittedly had come through a ruck of players, into the net before finding himself stranded in no-man’s land in those vital last few seconds.
Kane said: “It was a special ball from Raheem. It was in the air for a long time. I saw the keeper starting to come and then he went backwards and I managed to get on the end of it. It was a great point.”
Strachan, however, will no doubt take a long hard look at just how the ball ended up in Scotland’s penalty area, Gordon having beaten away an Eric Dier free-kick to leave his Celtic team-mate Stuart Armstrong charging forward only to make a catastrophic decision. With acres of vacant space to his left and Chris Martin charging into it, Armstrong opted to go right only for Kyle Walker to read his intentions, nicking in to win the ball and feed Sterling for that fatal cross. As tennis ace Jamie Murray tweeted: “Why didn’t he just put into onto cloud nine where the fans were?”
It was a moment of naivety when even knocking the ball long and pushing England 60 or 70 yards further up the pitch might just have bought those extra few seconds to hold onto.
Ultimately, though, it was Scotland’s failure to deal with crosses which again proved the killer. Look at all three conceded at Wembley or the three away in Slovakia.
It leaves Scotland in a position where they can do nothing but hope. Hope that they can win all four of their remaining matches and that England do likewise to leave the door open for that runners-up place.
Strachan, though, can approach the first of those games, a double-header away to Lithuania and home to Malta, the two countries below them in the table, with a degree of optimism. His players, at least against England, made up for their deficiencies with a determined, dogged and aggressive display which appeared to take Southgate’s players by surprise, at least in those opening minutes before Dier began to get his foot on the ball. Scotland, however, were unable to retain the ball for any length of time, Robert Snodgrass and Ikechi Anya forming an uncertain partnership on the right flank where Liverpool’s Adam Lallana ghosted into dangerous areas.
But England were forced to struggle for openings as everyone bar Griffiths got behind the ball with Kieran Tierney, whom many had thought would once again operate at right-back, slotting into central defence alongside Mulgrew and new Hearts skipper Christophe Berra and doing his burgeoning reputation no harm at all with another impressive performance although Scotland could probably have done with his overlapping ability on the left touchline to get themselves further up the pitch.
Strachan had billed this game as a “must not lose” while declaring his belief that his players could win the match, his faith almost rewarded but, as he admitted, that unbelievable ending had left the feeling that the point which most would have settled for before kick-off felt very much like a defeat. And a sore one at that.
Scotland: Gordon, Berra, Mulgrew, Robertson, Tierney, Brown, Armstrong, Anya (C Martin 81), Snodgrass (Fraser 66), Griffiths, Morrison (McArthur 46). Unused subs: Marshall, Naismith, Bannan, D Fletcher, Forrest, R Martin, Cairney, Reynolds, Hamilton.
England: Hart, Walker, Cahill, Smalling, Bertrand, Rashford (Oxlade-Chamberlain 65), Lallana, Dier, Alli (Sterling 84), Livermore (Defoe 90), Kane. Unused subs: Forster, Trippier, Lingard, Gibson, Stones, Jones, Cresswell, Heaton, Butland.
Referee: Paolo Tagliavento (Italy).