Jason Cummings made his Scotland Under-21 debut on Saturday and instantly targeted promotion to the senior team.
The Hibs striker led the attack as the Scots opened their European Under-21 Championship qualifying campaign with a 2-1 win over Northern Ireland in Lurgan. He admitted his ultimate aim is to reach Gordon Strachan’s senior squad.
Ricky Sbragia’s first match in charge of the Under-21s brought plenty encouragement, particularly from the triumvirate of Ryans playing just behind Cummings. Messers Gauld, Christie and Fraser all showcased their talents and created a number of chances from the attacking midfield area, with Christie and Fraser both on the scoresheet.
Cummings might have marked his debut with a goal and will be disappointed with one effort early in the second half, which he skewed wide with his weaker right foot. Nonetheless, he professed himself happy to be involved at this level after missing out on international experience in his teens. He is already looking ahead hoping to gain more recognition and, in time, a full cap.
“I remember when I was younger a lot of people I knew were getting called up for Scotland Under-16s and Under-17s. I wasn’t really getting into that group,” he said. “I had a couple of injuries and I was playing boys club football. I’m just delighted to be here and I want to make sure I stay here. Maybe I can get myself into the first-team soon. That’s the target.
“I’ll keep working hard. You need to be playing well for your club. If I keep at it I can get noticed and keep myself in the Under-21 team. I want to score a few more goals but I’m enjoying myself.
“I played one game for the Under-19s and that’s my first game for the Under-21s. I’m kind of a late starter at international level but I’m really enjoying it.
“I’ve been chucked in at the deep end but I think I’ve taken it in my stride. I’m looking forward to playing more games. I definitely respond to being thrown in. I’ve experienced quite a lot and been through quite a lot at club level. That’s helped me come in here and settle. I know quite a lot of the boys and they take you in and help you.”
Cummings was handed the No.9 shirt for the match at Lurgan’s Mourneview Park. Northern Ireland’s physical approach didn’t deter him or Scotland, nor did the hosts’ early strike through Mikhail Kennedy on just seven minutes.
It was a through ball from Cummings to Christie which produced the equaliser on 33 minutes as the recent Celtic signing produced a clinical finish from around 16 yards. Scotland commanded the remainder of the first half and forced Northern Ireland to retreat.
After the interval, Gauld’s run and pass found Fraser around ten yards from goal. He dispatched the ball into the net with minimum fuss minutes after Northern Ireland’s Dale Gorman was sent off for two bookings.
“This is definitely a step up,” continued Cummings. “I played with the Under-19s but this is a step up from that. It’s a lot more physical and a lot more intense. I thought we looked decent on Saturday and we controlled the game. It’s the result we wanted. It was good to get my first game for Scotland Under-21s, we got a good result and I thought all the boys played well.
“Away to Northern Ireland is a hard game to start with. It’s a good start. Most of the boys hadn’t played together so it’s great to get our first win together and look forward to the future. Northern Ireland were typical Irish. They were very aggressive, physical and strong. It helps you to play against that and it will help you in future.”
While Cummings occupied the Irish defence, Gauld, Christie and Fraser roamed around behind him with a licence to cause havoc. As the game progressed they influenced proceedings more and more. But for the Northern Ireland goalkeeper Conor Brennan – who plays at Kilmarnock – Scotland’s victory would have been more emphatic.
“It makes it easier for you because the three behind me are top-class players. You’ve got that all around you in this squad,” said Cummings. “I’m always disappointed when I don’t score but I’m just glad we got the result. I managed to get an assist with my ball for Christie so I’ll take that. The end result was the main thing.”
Also involved from the start were Hearts goalkeeper Jack Hamilton, right-back Callum Paterson and centre-back Jordan McGhee. All three did themselves justice, with Paterson regularly joining in attacks down the right side in the second half. Tynecastle wingers Billy King and Sam Nicholson entered the fray late on as substitutes and King forced two saves from Brennan before the final whistle.
“You’re playing with different players from different leagues and different countries in a squad like this,” said Cummings. “You learn a lot and I feel I’ve learned a lot. There’s different movements and stuff like that you can watch. It helps your own game.”
It was exactly the fresh start Sbragia wanted to his regime. Scottish Football Association performance director Brian McClair was watching closely and would have taken note of the Under-21s’ attack-mindedness on the day. The target is to qualify for the finals in Poland in 2017. If Sbragia can keep this squad together, he stands a decent chance of guiding Scotland to their first Under-21 tournament since 1996.
Northern Ireland (4-2-3-1): Brennan; McLaughlin, Sendles-White, Johnson, Conlan (Sharpe 73); Donnelly, Gorman; McLaughlin, McCartan (Maloney 61), Duffy (McDade 87); Kennedy.
Unused subs: Mitchell, Singleton, Cooper, McKnight.
Scotland (4-2-3-1): Hamilton; Paterson, McGhee, Findlay, McFadzean; Souttar, McGinn; Christie (Nicholson 81), Gauld, Fraser (King 85); Cummings (Shankland 75).
Unused subs: Henly, Fulton, Hendrie, Love.
Referee: Andris Treimanis (Latvia).