Stuart Armstrong blamed end-of-match fatigue for the ill-fated attempt to pass to Leigh Griffiths which played a significant part in costing Scotland one of the greatest results in their history.
Leading 2-1 and just seconds away from a famous win over England at a frenzied Hampden Park, the Scots looked home and hosed when Armstrong seized possession just outside his own box and had a chance to spark a counter-attack after Craig Gordon had beaten away a free-kick from Eric Dier.
The midfielder could have lumped the ball up the park or played it wide left to the untracked Chris Martin, who was marauding into space and could have taken it to the corner to see the game out or better still gone clean through on Joe Hart’s goal. Instead, with legs and minds wearying as the match entered its 94th minute, Armstrong opted to play a pass to his right to release Griffiths, who had just scored two sensational free-kicks to cancel out Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain’s opener. It was to prove a critical moment as the pass was weak and easily intercepted by Kyle Walker, who fed Raheem Sterling on the left before the Manchester City winger crossed for Harry Kane to equalise. A rueful Armstrong held his hands up afterwards.
Asked if he could have played it differently, the former Dundee United player said: “Yeah, I know. You make decisions in a game. It was really late on and, honestly, tiredness comes into play. I’ve seen Griff make a run – and it was a poor pass. In hindsight, I should probably just have shelled it into row Z.
“A number of things have to happen for a goal – but I probably should have just cleared the ball. You can never tell what phase of play is going to lead to what. It’s just one of those things. When I saw the ball hit the net, my feelings were honestly just total disappointment.
“We were so close to three points so to end up with one, you know, it’s just hard to take. The emotions of the game, being 1-0 down and Griff hitting two unbelievable goals to get us back in the lead with so little time remaining, it’s hard to know what to say.”
Although Griffiths’ free-kick double within the space of three minutes wasn’t enough to secure victory, Armstrong said the late Scottish lapse should not detract from the former Hibs striker’s sensational exploits as he got off the mark for his country in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. “I certainly wasn’t surprised by Leigh’s goals,” said Armstrong. “I think everyone in Scotland has seen his finishing ability and his skill with the dead ball, as well. I was stood right with him for the free-kicks, so I had the perfect view of both goals. They were two excellent finishes. More impressive is the fact that they came in a really high-pressure situation, in a really high-pressure game. For the second, I knew he was going to stick it to the other side of Joe Hart.
“I knew his confidence was going to be so high after the first one that I wasn’t even going to offer to take it. He stepped up brilliantly. To do it in a big game is amazing. To do it twice in such a pressurised situation is brilliant – he should be very proud of himself.
“I think Leigh has proven himself at club level that he can score goals. There’s never been any doubt about that. It was always only a matter of time before he scored his first Scotland goals. Now that he has his first two, he’ll kick on. He did really well even apart from his goals. He provided a lot of help to the midfield, coming back and making interceptions, winning fouls and giving us a breather. His all-round play was terrific.”
Although a draw against England would have been widely accepted before kick-off, Scotland remain in fourth place in Group F and have slipped four points adrift of second-place Slovakia in the race for a play-off spot with just four games remaining. Gordon Strachan’s team resume their campaign in early September with a double-header away to Lithuania and at home to Malta before finishing off with games at home to Slovakia and away to Slovenia in October.
James McArthur, who played the second half against England after replacing the injured James Morrison, believes it is a good thing that his team have some time to get over the late heartbreak they suffered on Saturday as they bid to haul themselves back into contention for second place.
“Maybe it is a good thing that there is a long gap to the next match,” said the Crystal Palace midfielder. “This might have been a decent result before the match, but so many of the boys are feeling really low, so it might be good that we are having a little break.
“It was absolutely heartbreaking for everyone. They were probably better than us on the ball and controlled it for spells, but we had the character to stay in the game.
“Griff has come up with two unbelievable free-kicks. At that point when Griff scored his second, you thought: ‘Wow, we are going to make history here.’ Griff is going to be in the history books and remembered for all the years for the two goals he scored against England. But if we had won that game, it would have been remarkable for the country and made a really huge difference to our chances of qualifying. It’s a big kick in the teeth.”
McArthur believes Scotland’s spirit came to the fore on Saturday. “The character within the group is incredible,” he said. “We were playing against top-class Premier League players, yet we pushed them right until the end.
“We kept going and going. People are talking about cramp, yet there was someone like James Morrison who hurt his knee inside the first two minutes and kept playing until half-time. It’s a not a question of character with us. It’s about Scottish people. We are resilient and you can see how down we are.”
When the dust settles on Saturday’s tumultuous match, McArthur feels Scotland can take plenty encouragement into their next fixtures after following up their well-earned victory over Slovenia in March with such a spirited effort against the strongest team in the group. “We need to win the next game now,” he said. “That’s all we need to be thinking about. Obviously, you try and keep building momentum because if anyone had said we’d get four points from the matches against Slovenia and England in the past two matches, many would have taken it. But we need to build and get win, win, win and keep going.
“The manager when we meet up next will make sure we learn from this experience, but there are a lot of positives to take from it. We need to try and take a step back and look at those positives.”
New Hearts captain Christophe Berra, who returned to the starting line-up and delivered a rock-solid display, admitted the Scots were punished for allowing the most lethal striker in England’s Premier League to drift free after Kane got himself in space between Charlie Mulgrew, Andy Robertson and keeper Craig Gordon to volley home Sterling’s high, hanging delivery. “The boys put in a great effort and you could see we were getting tired towards the end,” said Berra. “It’s the manner in which we lost it at the end but that is Harry Kane – if you give him a chance he will put it away, and that’s what he did even though he was quiet for most of the game. We are disappointed but I think we have got to be proud of ourselves.”