GORDON Strachanâ€™s success as Scotlandâ€™s manager, in breaking from what had become a dismal normality before his appointment, has been turning promise into tangible reward.
That much was the case again on a tense, fraught Celtic Park evening as Scotland secured a crucial win over the Republic of Ireland. It was the most significant result of Strachanâ€™s tenure to date, secured by a fine Shaun Maloney goal.
There was, then, no happy return to Glasgow for Martin Oâ€™Neill. Instead Strachanâ€™s attempt to take Scotland to their first major finals since 1998 received a tremendous boost. The result was all that mattered, as was evident by the level of exuberance shown by Scotlandâ€™s coaching staff, players and supporters alike at full-time. â€œThat was like a heavyweight boxing match,â€ said Strachan. â€œAs a pure football spectacle, it wasnâ€™t great. But as a spectacle of two groups of players not giving an inch? Mesmerising.â€
Oâ€™Neillâ€™s game plan was clear with the naming of his team. Robbie Keane was left among the visiting substitutes, with the decision of Oâ€™Neill to deploy Jon Walters in support of Shane Long a nod to Irelandâ€™s direct approach. â€œI make decisions for the good of the team,â€ said Oâ€™Neill of Keaneâ€™s omission. â€œRobbie accepted that.â€
However, Irelandâ€™s manager bemoaned the absence of the midfield players James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan. â€œIt would be great going into games with our best players available to us,â€ he added.
Strachanâ€™s personnel issue was a belated one, with James Morrison struck down by illness. The Scots maintained their 4-2-3-1 system which has profited under Strachan.
The pantomime villain here was Aiden McGeady. The Glasgow-born playerâ€™s decision to play for Ireland has long since been a bone of contention among Scotland fans and especially so on an occasion such as this. Those who point to sinister reasoning behind booing of McGeady might want to consider his treatment had he instead chosen to play for England.
McGeady found his way into the refereeâ€™s book after 15 minutes for upending Steven Fletcher. A fine Scotland opportunity had been wasted by Fletcher before then, the striker heading over from Maloneyâ€™s corner.
The first half was competitive to the point of being downright ugly. There were mitigating circumstances behind that, of course, with those who enjoy the blood and thunder of derby games no doubt enjoying what they saw. The lack of artistic merit owed plenty to the anonymity of McGeady, the gameâ€™s most creative talent, after his early brush with officialdom.
Ireland began the second period with renewed intent. After a corner was only partially cleared, Long headed straight into the hands of David Marshall from close range. Strachan immediately replaced the injured Fletcher, who has now scored only once in 18 international outings, with Chris Martin.
The visitors again came close as McGeadyâ€™s low drive was turned behind by Marshall. McGeady was suddenly prominent and, with an hour gone, Scotland were visibly struggling for inspiration.
It almost arrived with 65 minutes on the clock. A smart one-two between Steven Naismith and Steven Whittaker preceded a pass from the Everton man into the feet of Martin. The substitute turned the ball wide from six yards, thereby wasting what had been the finest chance of the match.
Oâ€™Neillâ€™s deputy, Roy Keane, earned a lecture from the referee, Milorad Mazic, 20 minutes from time after protesting a little too wildly about a straightforward free-kick decision. Keane had cut an agitated figure all evening, albeit generally towards the Irish players rather than the Serbian officials.
Keane soon had more meaningful reason to be irate. Maloney, one of few players on the pitch to display class, collected the ball from a short-corner routine â€“ Strachan later credited his coach, Stuart McCall, with that â€“ and curled a wonderful shot past David Forde.
It was a goal of genuine quality and Scotland cared not one jot that it was not in keeping with what had gone before. Oâ€™Neill rightly acknowledged later that the goal arrived at a period of the game in which Ireland were comfortable.
Robbie Keane was unsurprisingly introduced as Oâ€™Neill sought the kind of late salvation that Ireland have managed before in Group D but this time it did not arrive, with the crossbar saving Scotland in the dying moments. â€œThere is everything to play for,â€ said Oâ€™Neill. â€œIâ€™d have said that had we come out of this game unscathed. We are absolutely still in this, without a doubt.â€ – The Guardian