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The Russia post-mortem

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hislopsoffsideagain

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It's the hope that kills you. Any Scotland fan knows that all too well.

And yet, and yet.

For the first ten minutes last night, Scotland ripped into Russia. The sheer energy and will took the visitors - and the Hampden crowd - by surprise. The full-backs flew down the flanks; Callum McGregor demanded the ball at each stroke; John McGinn snapped at every Russian heel; Scott McTominay bestrode the midfield like a colossus. Steve Clarke's lineup and plan were absolutely perfect for the occasion.

And then John McGinn scored.

Goals change games. I'm not sure I've ever seen one change a game like this though. They buoy spirits, lift the crowd, inspire the scorers on.

Instead Scotland instantly metamorphosed from a feral beast into a frightened hedgehog, unnerved even by the slightest passing breeze and rustle of leaves. This was not as a result of quality play by the opposition, nor pressure from the stands, nor tactical caution from the dugout. Having created a springboard to win the match, the players collectively baulked at actually jumping on it.

The captain summed it up perfectly afterward. "It was as if it scared us".

Andrew Robertson was hardly exempt from criticism himself. When cool, experienced heads were required, the captain was stuck in Liverpool mode. Every time the ball came his way he put his head down and charged up the pitch with it, even when every moment pleaded for someone in dark blue to put their foot on the ball, stop and take a deep calming breath. At one point he tried a backheel by the corner flag - his own corner flag.

They were all at it though. Charlie Mulgrew, 33 years old and with over 40 caps to his name, could be excused for being bullied by Artem Dzyuba, whose physique had more in common with the twenty-two at Murrayfield than the penalty box at Hampden. There was no reason however for him to treat the ball like a hot potato, acting as if Dzyuba was constantly breathing down his neck even when he was twenty yards away catching his breath. Punt after punt after punt after punt. With the midfield struggling to get even into the same postcode as Oli McBurnie it was no surprise that the ball kept coming back.

And what of the midfield that contains so much talent and started as if they intended to prove it? The quartet playing in front of McTominay looked like rabbits stuck in Lada headlights. James Forrest and Ryan Fraser dropped deeper and deeper, negating their use as an attacking outlet without offering any actual protection to their full-backs. McGregor and McGinn looked stuck in No Man's Land, neither pressing their opponents nor dropping in beside McTominay, who had now gone from proverbial Colossus to actual Colossus, a tall, leaden-footed statue watching as people swarmed around him.

With the exception of David Marshall, whose outstanding efforts in preventing a shellacking will probably be forgotten, and Stephen O'Donnell, who just had a good old-fashioned mare, this felt very different from, say, a debacle like Kazakhstan where tactics were poor and players looked uncertain and unwilling from the off. Here the plan was great and was initially executed well, which tells us that the manager knew what he was doing and the players had the ability and nous to pull it off. Their subsequent reaction is perhaps more terrifying than if they had just played like horses**t.

As Robertson said, they were scared.

I grew up watching players like Colin Hendry, Kevin Gallacher, James McFadden and many others who seemed galvanized by wearing the Scotland shirt in the way we all believed we would be if, as in our dreams, we ever played for the national team. Now the wearers of said shirt appear burdened with the weight of twenty-one years of failure on it. Even in such a favourable situation, with a home crowd behind them and the reassurance of knowing that their strategy was working, the players simply could not deal with the pressure of being ahead against an opponent considered to be superior to them.

How on earth do you fix that? All the clever management and tactics and quality in the world will only take you so far if in moments like that you simply can't help thinking "we're going to screw this up because we're Scotland".

The only thing I'm certain of is that you don't fix it by playing Belgium three days later.

The caveat: even if last night had gone well, the onus was still very much on preparing for those Euro 2020 playoffs. Those are the games that count now. Everything else is about building towards those. And there remains no doubt in my mind that if anyone can pull this off, its Steve Clarke.

The fear is that even Clarke can't manage it. What if all those years of failure simply infect the Scotland National Team to such an extent that there's no shaking it?

Or, to put it bluntly, what if there is actually no hope?


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

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