OVER a week has elapsed and still the pain lingers. Mark McGhee has, like every Scotland supporter, been replaying the final moments of the game against England nine days ago in his head and wondering what, if anything, he personally could have done to prevent the late equaliser going in. His agonising, though, has done nothing to alter the final outcome.
The goal the national team allowed Harry Kane to ghost in and score in the third minute of injury-time was excruciating for all of their followers to witness. But for manager Gordon Strachan and his assistant McGhee it was possibly even more harrowing. It denied them the finest moment of their football careers. And there have been a few.
Both men played for Aberdeen in their historic European Cup Winners’ Cup final triumph over Real Madrid back in 1983. But both men felt that has their charges held on for victory last weekend it would have topped even that momentous result.
“It was a difficult one to take,” said McGhee as he attended a McDonald’s and SFA Community Football Day in Giffnock yesterday. “It was going to be such a fantastic result. Gordon and I agreed both before and after the game that had we won the game it would have been the greatest result in our careers, better than Gothenburg, better than any cup final, better than anything we had ever done.
“I have been reliving that last couple of minutes. I have been wondering if there was anything we could have done between getting our second goal and conceding their second goal. I think it is one of those things. I will probably always think there was something I could have done. But if you do something and you lose a goal then you think: ‘We shouldn’t have done that!’ To lose it in the last second like that remains hard to bear.
“After the game Gordon went back to the hotel with his wife Lesley and got himself a cup of tea. I went out with the doc, a couple of the physios and the sports scientist, had a couple of glasses of wine and chewed the fat. It wasn’t so much to dwell on what might have been. The positives which came out of it were huge. I am sure that in time we will come to realise it was an important point. But at the moment we can’t think like that.”
One of the huge plusses to come out of the Russia 2018 qualifier at Hampden for McGhee, the former Aberdeen, Hamburg, Celtic and Scotland striker, was the personal performance of Leigh Griffiths, who scored two sensational late free-kicks to give his country hope they could pull off what would have been a famous triumph, up front.
The 26-year-old had failed to score in 12 appearances for the national team going into the game. But he ended his barren run in some style. His compatriot feels that augurs well for the remainder of the qualifying campaign and expects him to build on his showing and plunder more goals.
“We had seen in the last game against Slovenia back in March, before he got injured and had to come off, that Leigh was playing well,” he said. “He had that one under the bar that you thought he would maybe have scored. But, apart from that, he had already impressed.
“Like so many of the Celtic players this season under Brendan (Rodgers), he has developed a side of his game that many of us thought was missing a little bit. He is now linking up. He is doing a kind of Ian Rush. He is keeping the whole back four occupied. He was terrific.
“His two goals were world class. You have got to say that. Sometimes these phrases are used lightly, but there is no doubt in my mind that is how they should be described. The first free-kick was fantastic.
“To then produce it again was amazing. I am not evenly talking about technically, I am talking about psychologically and mentally. To have the composure and ability to step up again and put it in the other side and score again showed outstanding intelligence. I can’t sing his praises high enough.”
McGhee believes Griffiths, who was second choice striker behind Moussa Dembele for much of last season at Celtic, has staked a strong claim for a starting spot at his club side in the new campaign with his personal display and spectacular double and will have given his manager something to mull over before their first Champions Leaue qualifier.
“One of the things he was doing in his performance was saying to Brendan: ‘Look, here I am, I am prepared to work the way you want me to work’,” he said. “He has come on to that. I have seen him play for Celtic just off a striker and he is just not comfortable doing that. He wants to be up front himself, getting in behind people and threatening. He has evolved over the last season.”
Scotland, who are in fourth place in Group F four points behind Slovakia, will take on Lithuania away in Vilnius in September and must win to stand any chance of finishing second in their section and securing a play-off spot.
It will not be easy overcoming opponents who they were lucky to draw 1-1 with at home last October – only a James McArthur goal with little over a minute remaining salvaged a point in that bitterly disappointing outing – but McGhee is cautiously optimistic.
Asked if the display and result against England had increased Scotland’s chances of ending their absence from the finals of a major tournament that stretches back 19 years to France ’98 despite the desperately disappointing denouement, McGhee said: “Definitely.”
The 60-year-old is hopeful that if Stuart Armstrong, Scott Brown, Andy Robertson and others are fit and available, can play with the same quality and exhibit a similar work rate in their next match at the start of next season they have a chance of defying their critics.
“You have still got to get to the next game and see who is available and what form they are in and all that,” he said. “But it has put down a marker for them. They know what they are capable of. We have got to somehow engender the same determination in every game, like the Lithuanian game or the Malta game after that. But we now have those two games and they are definitely winnable. If we were to win those then it changes the situation.”
Mark McGhee was speaking at the McDonald’s and Scottish FA Community Football Day in Giffnock, encouraging youngsters to play football at a grassroots level and celebrating Quality Mark clubs in the area. For more information visit http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk/betterplay