Scotland are marching towards the play-offs with the ideal man keeping goal
The most commonly asked question among Scotland fans at Euro 2020 – with perhaps the exception of ‘what are the English media about?’ – was 'what was David Marshall doing that far off his line?’
The hero of Belgrade was scapegoated as the dunderheid of Hampden after his bizarrely adventurous standing position aided Patrik Schick in netting a world-class strike and putting the Czech Republic 2-0 up, a result which would prove significantly impactful to last 16 hopes.
There wasn’t a lot of optimism to take from those three European Championship fixtures. The draw against England was a pleasant surprise and had the whole country beaming and dreaming, but the defeats to both the Czechs and Croatia in Glasgow, coupled with an underwhelming start to World Cup qualifying, had many wondering if the ascent to an international tournament was merely a mirage after decades wandering the desert.
Four months and four consecutive victories in qualification later, expectations have been dramatically altered with Steve Clarke’s men on the brink of a play-off place. Discounting the Euro 2020 play-offs, which Scotland fell backwards into thanks to the Nations League, it would be the first time since 2003 that we’ve reached such a stage in qualifying for either the Euros or World Cup. Getting to Qatar 2022 will still be a difficult task, as evidenced by some of the potential opponents which will stand in the way (Spain? No thanks!) but at least a place among the final 12 hopefuls would represent real progress. It may also set us up for a second seed and more advantageous crack at it next time around.
A growing understanding between strikers Lyndon Dykes and Che Adams has played a part, as has the discovery of the ideal midfield blend with Callum McGregor and Billy Gilmour behind John McGinn (ignoring the daft decision to reinstate Scott McTominay there on Tuesday). But we cannot underestimate the change between the sticks.
Clarke kept faith with Marshall for the remaining two Euros fixtures after the Schick error, but that trust has since evaporated. The 36-year-old hasn’t featured in either squad for the last two international breaks with the gloves fully entrusted to Hearts No.1 Craig Gordon.
The decision was rather ruthless, even if Marshall hasn’t featured at all for Derby County this season, and suggests Clarke was close to making a similar decision back in June.
Marshall was the King of Scotland after his decisive penalty save against Serbia, but he hadn’t covered himself in glory in the early World Cup qualifiers and patchy club form saw him dropped from the Derby starting XI as the campaign drew to a close. In the end, Gordon’s then-standing as a Scottish Championship goalkeeper, coupled with an untimely error in judging Memphis Depay’s free-kick in the 2-2 draw with the Dutch, was enough to save Marshall’s spot.
It is now widely believed Clarke got it wrong. Gordon should’ve started at the Euros. But let us now dispense with ‘what could have been?’. The future is looking increasingly bright, even if the last line of defence will turn 39 before the play-offs begin.
Enjoying his second season back at his boyhood heroes, Gordon is in terrific form and has leapfrogged Rangers’ favourite Allan McGregor as the top stopper in the country once again. Against the Faroe Islands on Tuesday night he underlined his importance, making a terrific save at 0-0 and ensuring Scotland didn’t dig themselves a hole too big to climb out of.
Who knows if he’ll still have enough left to protect the goal with the same spectacular proficiency when the next campaign comes around, but for this one he’s shown himself more than capable of being our saviour when called upon.
An easy selection for man-of-the-match following the sweat-inducing 1-0 victory, procured thanks to a late Lyndon Dykes goal, it was Gordon’s turn to face the media after the match in Gundadalur.
Displaying typical humility, the hero of the hour resisted the opportunity to talk about his own exploits and instead heaped the praise on his team-mates, even defending their wholly unconvincing performance against a side ranked 114th in the world.
“They’re not a bad team. You have to give them the respect they deserved. They were very well organised and they gave us a good game,” Gordon said.
“We said before the match that we needed to play the full 90 minutes. Denmark came here and needed a very late goal. The Faroes made it very difficult for us but we kept at it and found a way.
"The fitness levels are excellent within the team. We know we can go for 90, 100 minutes, however long it’ll take to get that winner. We know that if we keep playing our way and creating chances then we’ll eventually take one.
“We work for each other, right from the start of the week through to the games. We’ve got guys coming off the bench in the final minutes just to head balls away. That’s just the spirit we have and if we continue that we give ourselves the best chance to win games.”
Winning against Moldova in the next fixture will be imperative to clinching a play-off spot. Gordon started the last visit to the former Soviet state in 2004 when Bertie Vogts’ side could only muster a 1-1 draw, which ultimately saw the end of the German as national team boss.
"I hope we get a better result this time. It was a difficult time when we last went over there. I think we changed manager not long after that,” he said.
“Moldova are a good team, they showed that at Hampden, so we’ll have to play well, probably better than we played tonight.”
Even if the performance is more Faroes than Austria, at least there we know the right man is in place to save us when all else fails.