Hearts’ Steven Naismith joins elite group to reach double figure on all-time Scotland scorers list
Most of those involved in Scotland’s wretched Euro 2020 Group I campaign, either as participants or observers, were happy to see it consigned to the history books last night.
But while the majority will attempt to erase it from their memories as quickly as possible, at least one man now has reason to recall it with a degree of fondness.
In spearheading a recovery from a half-time deficit to earn victory over Kazakhstan at a sparsely populated Hampden, Steven Naismith also nudged his way on to an exclusive list of players who have reached double figures on the all-time list of Scotland international goalscorers.
The Hearts striker, whose return to fitness and availability has brought a desperately needed boost to his country’s cause, headed home the tenth goal of his international career as Steve Clarke’s squad clinched third place in a group from which their chances of automatic qualification for next summer’s finals had disappeared long ago.
Naismith is only the 21st player in the 147-year history of the Scotland national team to make it to the ten-goal mark where he now sits alongside luminaries from the past such as Bobby Collins and Colin Stein.
The 33-year-old, who won his 51st cap against the Kazakhs, now looks like a key figure in Scotland’s bid grab the lifeline on offer in the Euro 2020 play-offs next March.
When the fixture schedule for Group I was first released, the more optimistic members of the Tartan Army, hoping that insurance policy might not be required, would have had this Hampden date marked on their calendars as a potential red-letter day.
Sadly, instead of a sell-out send-off to a place in next summer’s finals, this was just about as low key an occasion as any of them could have feared with fewer than 20,000 inside the national stadium.
It was only appropriate that Kazakhstan should be Scotland’s final opponents of such a dismal nine-month group stage campaign, having set the tone for it with their comprehensive 3-0 win over the squad which started out under Alex McLeish back in March.
For all of his efforts so far, Clarke, pictured, has simply been unable to change the mood music around a group of players who have offered precious little to suggest they have the potential to improve sufficiently for a successful tilt at those play-offs in March.
He at least felt able here to name an unchanged starting line-up for the first time in his eight-game tenure, offering the side which won 2-1 against Cyprus in Nicosia on Saturday the opportunity to provide him with further encouragement.
Clarke has already used 30 players as Scotland manager in his search for the system and personnel which might lead the country’s national team out of the doldrums.
But the right formula appeared as far out of the manager’s reach as ever with Scotland unable to impose any authority on the visitors whose only other victories in Group I came against whipping boys San Marino.
The Scots at least avoided the kind of calamitous start they made in Kazakhstan where they found themselves 2-0 down inside the first ten minutes of one of the bleakest nights in their international history.
But while it would have been almost impossible to plumb those depths again, Scotland were again unconvincing in the early stages during which Aleksei Schetkin missed a glaring chance to put the visitors in front after only 15 minutes when the home defence was stretched with alarming ease.
John McGinn, whose deployment as an advanced midfielder just off the main striker has been one of the more progressive developments under Clarke, tried to lift Scotland as he dragged a shot just wide but it was a generally limp and incoherent first-half display by the men in dark blue.
The vulnerability of the Scotland defence has long been a barrier to progress and it was exposed yet again when Kazakhstan took the lead in the 34th minute. Clarke has overseen only one clean sheet since taking charge, in the facile 6-0 win over San Marino, and saw his hopes of improving that statistic dashed when Baktiyar Zainutdinov, scorer of the Kazakhs’ third goal in the first meeting of the sides, took full advantage of a hesitant and retreating backline to beat David Marshall from 22 yards with a curling shot.
Mercifully, Scotland were much improved after the break and their greater intensity brought the 48th minute equaliser by McGinn, the Aston Villa midfielder’s deflected free-kick, earned by Naismith, lifting the gloom among the home fans.
Now displaying far more conviction, Scotland were dominant without approaching any great heights in the second half. Naismith’s moment to cherish came in the 64th minute, a typically brave close-range header.
McGinn added gloss to the scoreline in stoppage time and he is another who can reflect on the campaign with positivity, having scored seven goals.
But three wins to end Group I against San Marino, Cyprus and Kazakhstan, while bringing welcome momentum for Scotland, can’t deflect from the size of the challenge still facing Clarke.