Scotland won the one that counted, but don’t try telling Gordon Strachan’s players today they lost the one that didn’t matter.
Three precious points from the European Championship clash with the Republic of Ireland, a victory which makes qualification for the finals in France in a couple of years time a very distinct possibility, was all that was exercising the minds a few days ago.
Alongside the importance of that match, playing England was of secondary interest. But never suggest a game which means so much could ever be considered meaningless.
The latest instalment of the world’s oldest international fixture, this the 112th match between the Auld Enemies, was, if the pre-match hype was to be believed, possibly the Scots’ best chance to notch a win on home turf for the first time since Richard Gough nodded home the only goal of the game in 1985.
Instead, as captain Scott Brown admitted after watching Wayne Rooney take two more steps closer to Sir Bobby Charlton’s scoring record for England, his double coming after a first-half opener by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Scots felt they had let themselves down.
Second best throughout the 90 minutes, Strachan’s side hardly laid a glove on their opponents until Andy Robertson’s late strike gave them a glimmer of hope, one which lasted barely 120 seconds before Rooney restored England’s two-goal lead.
But it was the intensity with which England played that caught the Scots unawares, leaving them “spooked” by the approach adopted by Roy Hodgson’s players.
“I think they must have watched our game against the Irish and thought ‘okay, we’ll go for them’,” said Strachan, “And that’s what they did. I think it spooked our players a bit. I think we were expecting England to sit and wait but they did not do that. They are a team full of Champions League players and they showed that.”
It was a point well made, Hodgson’s starting XI valued at £144 million and boasting players all featuring for clubs in England’s Premier League, in stark contrast to the Scottish squad which contained few presently playing at that level and with a total value of £9m.
Strachan also conceded that his players had looked fatigued after their efforts on Friday night, the Scotland boss talked out of making the changes he intended by players desperate to enjoy a Scotland v England match, such games having become something of a rarity in recent years.
The upshot was that only one change was made, Chris Martin replacing the injured Steven Fletcher up front, only for the striker, enjoying a prolific season for Derby County, to be hooked at half-time having proved ineffectual against Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling.
Hodgson, on the other hand, made six changes to the side which had beaten Slovenia at the weekend.
This was the first clash of the Auld Enemy north of the border in 15 years and if any of the younger elements of the English side doubted the warnings of Hodgson and his skipper Wayne Rooney of the hostility with which they’d be received, then they quickly discovered this would be different.
God Save the Queen was rendered all but inaudible by the wall of jeers which poured down from every corner except that occupied by the 5000 or so England fans inside Celtic Park, although by the end of the 90 minutes it was the Tartan Army which had been well and truly silenced.
England, though, didn’t look in the slightest un-nerved, Danny Welbeck catching Steven Whittaker in possession before taking Rooney’s return to fire in a shot which David Marshall couldn’t hold, the goalkeeper requiring Grant Hanley to step in before any real damage could be inflicted.
The pace of the game was just as frenetic as Friday night and it didn’t take long before the tackles began flying in as they had in that European Championship qualifier.
Unfortunately for Scotland, the first half was as one-sided as that Euro play-off match in 1999 at Hampden when a double by Paul Scholes all but ended the Tartan Army’s hopes of making the finals the following year, although Don Hutchinson did restore some pride with the only goal at Wembley a few days later.
Only fleetingly did Strachan’s side threaten. In one flowing movement, Scott Brown and Steven Naismith carved out space for Robertson to charge forward and fire in a low cross which just evaded the outstretched studs of his captain.
But just as Strachan’s players appeared to be getting to grips with the game, England struck, Hanley caught sleeping as he allowed Jack Wilshere’s cross from wide left to drop over his head, allowing Oxlade-Chamberlain to apply the slightest of touches and leave Marshall helpless.
Chris Martin had been anonymous in his first start in a dark blue shirt, the Derby County striker starved of service, and he didn’t reappear after the interval as Naismith moved forward to be supported from the middle of the park by substitute James Morrison, while former Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon made his much anticipated return to the international scene after the interval.
The Celtic No 1 only had to wait a couple of minutes for his first touch but unfortunately for him it was to pick the ball out of his net, Rooney having taken advantage of more sloppy defending to head the ball home from close range and ensure a 47th victory for England in this fixture.
Robertson threw Scotland a glimmer of hope when he played a one-two with former Dundee United team-mate Johnny Russell to slip the ball between Fraser Forster and his near post, but England’s reply was immediate, Adam Lallana laying the ball back for Rooney to take his international tally to 46 goals in his 101st game for his country.
It left Brown to sum up the Scots performance, the Celtic midfielder admitting: “We let ourselves down the way we played. We were not positive enough. It’s not like us not to pass the ball. We didn’t play to our game plan.”