Steven Fletcher ended his six-year drought for Scotland in emphatic fashion as he bagged a first hat-trick since his Hibs days in last night’s Euro 2016 demolition of plucky Gibraltar.
The Sunderland striker hadn’t previously scored for his country since netting against Iceland in April 2009, while his last goal for his club was almost five months ago. However, the 28-year-old former Easter Road hitman was relieved to finally get back in the groove as he became the first Scotland player to hit a treble since Colin Stein did so against Cyprus in 1969.
“I hadn’t scored for a while, so I’d have been happy with just the one goal but I’m delighted to get a hat-trick,” said Fletcher. “I’ve been told often enough about how long it is since I last scored for my country so I’m glad I got off the mark again. I haven’t had a lot of chances to score for Scotland over the years but I could probably have scored even more than three against Gibraltar.
“I was shocked to hear it was 46 years since a Scotland player scored three - I thought Kenny Miller or Kenny Dalgliesh might have got one. I’ll put the match ball in my glass cabinet beside the one I got against Gretna [for Hibs in a 4-2 win in 2008].”
Fletcher’s goals meant his side ended up with a relatively comfortable victory despite an anxious opening half hour in which Gibraltar made a stronger-than-anticipated start and notched their first-ever competitive goal.
In anticipation of a one-sided encounter against a side who had shipped 21 goals in their previous four qualifiers, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan fielded just one central defender - Russell Martin - in an ultra-attacking starting line-up. While full-backs Alan Hutton and Andy Robertson tucked in to help Martin, at times they were effectively playing a 1-7-2 formation. It left the Scots vulnerable at times in an opening half hour which was more fraught than had been widely envisaged.
After being frustrated by the visitors early on, the Scots had an almighty scare when Joseph Chipolina’s cross from the left had Marshall backpedalling frantically to claw it out from under his crossbar. The much-anticipated cakewalk wasn’t materialising in the early exchanges and in the 13th minute, Gibraltar’s Liam Walker trundled a low 25-yard shot wide of the target.
Matt Ritchie had Scotland’s first clear chance when he got in behind the defence but his tame shot was easily blocked by keeper Jamie Robba.
The Scots had strong claims for a penalty waved away when Fletcher appeared to be tripped by Ryan Casciaro in the 16th minute. But just seconds later they were awarded a spot-kick when Shaun Maloney ran on to a Ritchie pass and was felled by Robba. The penalty was only given after Finnish referee Mattias Gestranius had consulted with the additional assistant referee behind the goal, and Maloney made no mistake in slotting the ball low into Robba’s right-hand corner.
The visitors weren’t in the mood for capitulation at this stage, however, and incredibly, within two minutes, they had scored their first-ever competitive goal. Lee Casciaro was put through by Aaron Payas and, from just inside the box, he drilled a low angled shot into the net, sparking wild scenes among the 500-strong Gibraltarian contingent. Strachan could have been forgiven at this point for shelving his one-at-the-back formation, but he decided to keep faith with his bold approach.
Naismith should have restored the Scots’ advantage in 21 minutes when he ran on to a Fletcher head-flick but blazed his shot well wide with only the keeper to beat.
Just as groans of frustration were becoming more and more audible from the home support, the Scots edged ahead again in the 29th minute as Fletcher forced home a soft header from seven yards out after the Gibraltar defence failed to deal with an Ikechi Anya cross.
Five minutes later Scotland went further ahead when Maloney converted his second penalty after Naismith was fouled by Lee Casciaro. Naismith then got himself in on the act as he slotted in an Anya cutback from ten yards out in the 38th minute.
At half-time Strachan decided to shore things up by introducing a second central defender, Gordon Greer, in place of Ritchie and switching to a more orthodox 4-2-3-1 formation.
Despite being in command of the match, Scotland had to content themselves with just two goals in what was largely a non-event of a second half. Both of them came from Fletcher. The striker, who had previously missed two good chances to add to his tally, nodded in a cross from substitute Jordan Rhodes in 77 minutes. And he sealed his historic treble with a minute left when he curled in a low shot from 16 yards after being teed up by Barry Bannan, another substitute.
The victory keeps Scotland in the thick of the battle and means they will head to Ireland in June buoyed by a run of ten points from their last four qualifiers.
Scotland: Marshall; Hutton, Martin, Robertson; Ritchie (Greer 46), Brown, Maloney, Morrison, Anya (Bannan 73); S Fletcher, Naismith (Rhodes 65). Subs not used: Gordon, McGregor, Russell, McArthur, May, D Fletcher, Forsyth, Berra, Forrest.
Gibraltar: Robba; Wiseman, Artell (Garcia 53), R Casciaro, J Chipolina; R Chipolina (Gosling 73), L Cascario, Payas, Bardon (D Duarte 82), Walker; Priestley. Subs not used: J Perez, Coleing, K Casciaro, Sergeant, B Perez, JP Duarte, Bosio, Jolley.
Ref: Mattias Gestranius (Finland)