The decision to get up at 3.40 am to watch a football match on TV is not one that I take lightly. Not so long ago I would have taken some convincing that getting up at that time would be worth the effort (trust me, as I write this some 18 hours later it was an effort) to watch Scotland but that was before Gordon Strachan was appointed manager.
The match against Ireland at Celtic Park was the most important of Strachan’s reign so far. The way we played in winning 1-0 was a complete and utter testament to the manager and his methods. Afterwards, he described the game as “mesmerising” and compared it to “one of those big heavyweight boxing matches.”
It was certainly physical; not altogether surprising with Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane in the other corner. O’Neill’s sides have never shirked the physical side of the game and Keane has never shirked a perceived slight in an empty room. Keane got a stern talking to from the ref midway through the second half and delivered one of his trademark stares which look as though they could knock a man to the floor.
Plenty of men were on the floor at various points of this contest but it was far from a dirty match. It was full blooded, committed and tense. The referee deserves a lot of credit for handling it firmly without being overly fussy.
Strachan admitted that “as a spectacle of pure football, it wasn’t that great,” which is a fair assessment but a slightly modest one in terms of the extent to which his side tried to play with some attacking flair. The Irish seemed more interested in trying to frustrate those efforts and overall I thought they were quite poor.
A point would have been a much better result for the Irish than the Scots. By about 70 minutes my pre-match confidence of victory was beginning to ebb a little. My brother however, a man of more optimistic disposition than I, was resolute: “yep” was his one word answer to my “still confident?” question.
And yep, a couple of minutes later we were ahead. What a goal it was. Maloney took a short corner, exchanging a one-two with Anya, and then slipped the ball to Brown inside the box. Maloney made an arcing run to the edge of the box and Brown returned the ball to him with a delicate back-heel. Maloney curled a delightful shot into the far corner.
Cue delirious scenes in the stands, on the touchline and in my living room. One of the more difficult aspects of watching a game at home so early in the morning is trying not to wake the rest of the household up if something exciting happens. I leapt from the couch fists pumping and just managed to suppress the cheer in my throat before it emerged to shatter the pre-dawn tranquillity.
Strachan credited the goal to his assistant Stuart McCall who apparently had concocted the set-piece routine on the training ground. It was an absolutely brilliant goal and one that gave Scotland the win that they deserved.
The group remains wide open. Germany have made a slightly underwhelming start but I still expect them to top it when all is said and done. Scotland, Ireland and Poland all remain heavyweight contenders in a group that looks as though it will go the distance.
The Irish qualified for the last European Championships in 2012, held at a time when the country was in the grip of austerity measures that many blamed on German leader Angela Merkel. The picture at the top of this post was the response to that by one group of fans and the quote has been a favourite of mine since the first time I saw it.
I returned to bed at 6 am this morning, exhausted but very happy. Scotland had given me the performance and the points which I felt my commitment merited.
I end this post on a sad and sombre note. In preparing to write it I discovered the news that a fan who attended the game died when he fell in a stairwell as he was leaving the stadium. He was just 20 years old. The title of this blog reflects a desire to celebrate football and all that it means to those of us that love it but also to keep the game in perspective. A tragic incident like this certainly does put it in perspective and our thoughts and prayers are with the young man’s family and friends at this difficult time.