There’s not much that unites the dead Steve Clarke and the occasionally hilarious John Cleese.
However, you would imagine the Scottish manager’s chances of reviving one of Monty Python man’s most famous characters – the Black Knight of the Holy Grail, the Holy Grail being an apt description of what visitors found on a remarkable night in Krakow .
Clarke suffered a desperate – almost insane – blow on the injury and suspension fronts before that stalemate, one of the more stressful, joyous and meaningful draws the national team has recorded in a long time.
A draw that opens up a world of possibility and hope. A great point that was enough for Scotland to top the Nations League group and take all the loot that comes with it, like a winner at Bullseye. More “here’s what you won” instead of “here’s what you could have won”.
Clarke captain Andy Robertson looking for treble header last week? His best player, Kieran Tierney, is out with a concussion? His fighting midfielder Scott McTominay is also out? “I’ve had worse,” Clarke might have said, just like the Black Knight.
Are you missing three full-backs and four central defenders? “It’s just a scratch”. A virus in camp thrown into the mix. “Just a flesh wound”. A chain of four thrown together? Chance after chance after chance for Ukraine? “None will happen”. The tartan army chewing their fingers off in all parts of the world while Clarke stayed cool on the sidelines? “I move for nobody”.
Scotland persevered. That’s all they had to do. The excellence of her two previous results made it so. Six points out of six put them in the box seat, but there was still so much to do, so many nervous moments to get through.
Andriy Yarmolenko was missing a sitter in the eighth minute, Artem Dovbyk was missing after 22, Taras Stepanenko missed one after 36, Mykhaylo Mudryk was denied by Craig Gordon after 49.
It went on and on. Scotland give the ball away and persevere, scrambling with every ounce of energy in their bodies. A lot of these guys were playing their third high-intensity international in six days and at times it looked like it. Some of them run on exhaust fumes. But running. And running.
The prominent names in this Scotland squad are well known but Jack Hendry has been a commanding presence in all three games, not just when he defended well against Ukraine last week or when he scored the goal that propelled his side to victory against Ireland but especially in Kraków.
He put together this inexperienced defence, a man who has played just 97 minutes of club football in different leagues and in different countries this season. In the end he looked pained. No wonder. He had defecated.
Scotland have conceded a goal in three games. one. That fact alone is insane. They rode their luck, but most teams ride their luck at different points when they achieved something worthwhile.
Danylo Ignatenko saved a Gordon shot in the 51st minute, Illya Zabarnyi’s shot went over the bar in the 63rd minute and Stepanenko missed the volley in the 79th minute. As much as it was a one-way traffic, it was Scotland who threw themselves before gunshots and rushed and rushed as best they could.
The closer we got to full-time, the more the fear grew that someone with late illness would announce itself. The kind of things that happen to Scotland – or maybe used to happen. The progression in this roster of players is now screamingly obvious.
Porteous – from pantomime villain to hero of the tartan army
The final minutes brought another anxious moment when Ryan Porteous had to step in and pull off a tackle. There was a pause for the prospect of a penalty but then a replay showed Porteous had his timing absolutely right.
Debuting, it must be said, without the general approval of non-Hibs fans among Scottish fans, that defense was as important as anything that night.
A pantomime villain of the Scottish game, Porteous occasionally got out of position, but by and large he withstood a challenge many thought was above him. People went straight – money on a red card and odds – on a conceded penalty.
The second the team was named, there were prophecies of doom on social media. Porteous was praised by Clarke in the episode. His manager would have known what so many football fans in this country would think of his centre-back and his eulogy addressed that flak.
Scotland finished this group with seven points from their last three games. They were all claimed without a minute’s action by Robertson, Grant Hanley, Liam Cooper and John Souttar, who had been outstanding in defeating Denmark what felt like many moons ago.
Nathan Patterson, a rising star, only played 26 minutes. They lost Tierney, trailing 1-0 to the Republic of Ireland. They lost Aaron Hickey 1-1. You still won. Character and just enough quality got the job done.
Ahead of the Ukraine game in Krakow, another tremendous game in less than a week, there couldn’t have been many people outside of the Scotland bubble who thought they were going to get what they were looking for. Too many games, too many tired limbs, too many absent players. They found a new level in the bottle inserts.
So Clarke can lie down now. He can go home to rest and regroup knowing that his players – all his players, big names and not so big names – have put in great performances. How will he pick an 11 when most of that group are fit when they get back together for the next international window? This is the dilemma every manager dreams of.
Tuesday’s prize was a guaranteed place in the Euro 2024 play-offs, promotion to the top division heavyweights in the Nations League and a seed in pot two in the draw for the Euro qualifying tournament proper. There is also a sense of well-being. buckets of it. You can’t reach out and touch it, but you can feel it in the air and see it on the faces of Scotland fans of all ages.
We will see these players again soon. The nice thing is that fans will be counting down the days until then.
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