The only word to describe it is bedlam. It was certainly difficult to make sense of that extraordinary finale other than to say that, ultimately, Harry Kane showed everyone right at the end why Gareth Southgate had made him captain for the day. It was the 93rd minute when Kane denied Scotland their “football, bloody hell” moment and, in the process, that feat of escapology might have helped to secure him the armband on a longer basis.
That, however, tells only part of the story on a day when both sides experienced the exhilarating joys and excruciating disappointments of football, all in the space of a few minutes. For Scotland, in particular, it was an agonising way to finish a wild and eccentric encounter. Yet England will have their own frustrations bearing in mind they had been drifting towards a relatively prosaic 1-0 win before all that late drama when Leigh Griffiths brought the home crowd to a point of rare euphoria.
The two free-kicks that Griffiths expertly placed beyond Joe Hart came in the 87th and 90th minutes and it is doubtful Hampden has ever made a more deafening roar than when the second one curled into the England net. Before this game, the Scottish FA had announced a competition to find the greatest goal in the team’s history. Both of these free-kicks could make the shortlist and at that stage Scotland were on the verge of inflicting England’s first defeat in a qualifying fixture since October 2009.
Kane, though, had other ideas and it was a remarkably composed finish in the circumstances, ensuring Southgate’s team remain in a position of strength at the top of Group F. Kane’s right-foot volley was England’s get-out-of-jail card and the story changed again. Suddenly he was running to the corner to celebrate and, all across the pitch, Scotland’s players could be seen dropping to their knees.
Their grief was understandable but when they have time to reflect they should not to be too disheartened when, to put it into context, Gordon Strachan’s starting lineup featured three players from teams that will begin next season in England’s second tier and a centre-half, Charlie Mulgrew, who had just been relegated to League One with Blackburn Rovers.
If there was an imbalance of talent, Scotland seemed determined to make up for it in other ways. They were quick to the ball, strong in the tackle and could never be accused of lacking effort. They also had a captain, Scott Brown, who quickly gave the impression that whatever England’s players encountered alongside the Royal Marines last weekend was going to be chickenfeed compared to 90 minutes in his company. Brown’s first challenge on Dele Alli – a reducer, to use the old-fashioned parlance – earned him a yellow card inside the opening three minutes and he was fortunate, in the extreme, to stay on after another hack at the same player shortly after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, one of England’s substitutes, had opened the scoring.
England had taken a while to settle but once they cleared their heads of any early uncertainty they had enough of the ball in promising positions to have made it a more straightforward assignment and that, perhaps, was the biggest disappointment for Southgate. England’s supporters had started going through their victory songs just before Griffiths turned the game upside down. Scotland had been compared, unfavourably, with San Marino. Indeed, the first goal from Griffiths took place with “Scotland’s staying home” as its backdrop. Southgate was exaggerating when he described it as “a game we were in control of for 80 minutes” but his exasperation was understandable and, without wishing to take anything away from Griffiths, these were moments that will bring more scrutiny on Hart’s performances.
He is not the goalkeeper he once was and Griffiths took advantage with one 25-yard effort towards one corner and then another, from a similar distance, into the other side. For Hart, it cannot be satisfactory to be beaten from that distance twice in quick succession. They were, according to Strachan, the best free-kicks he could remember from all his years associated with Scotland. From a goalkeeper’s perspective, however, neither shot was fully into the corner.
Until those moments Scotland had so little momentum in the final third of the pitch that Griffiths, playing as a lone striker, resorted to a penalty-area dive earlier in the second half. England found it difficult to get behind the opposition defence but Kane had at least three other presentable chances, one headed off the goalline by Kieran Tierney, and another shot from Jake Livermore came back off the post after deflecting off the striker.
Oxlade-Chamberlain had been on the pitch only five minutes when he turned past Brown, moved across the penalty area, right to left, and opened the scoring with a rising left-foot shot. England looked relatively untroubled until a foul by Gary Cahill gave Griffiths his first opportunity to take aim.
Strachan reflected that he had “never heard a noise like it” when the second one went in, leaving him on the verge of what he noted wistfully would have been the best result of his managerial career. England, however, set about rescuing themselves with all the competitive courage that Southgate had talked about in the buildup to the match.
It was an onslaught once the public announcer let everyone knew there would be four minutes of stoppage time and, finally, the substitute Raheem Sterling picked out Kane. England needed their captain and it was an elegant finish given the pressure on that moment and the consequences if he had failed.