Goodnight Vienna, hello World Cup? Not since James McFadden rattled one into the top corner from 30 yards in Paris has a Scotland win felt so important.
Steve Clarke’s men stunned second seeds Austria – whose world ranking of 23 is 26 places higher than the Scots’ – to put their 2022 World Cup qualifying destiny back in their own hands.
The milestone 1-0 victory was secured by a Lyndon Dykes penalty as the nation dreams of making back-to-back major tournaments and a first World Cup since 1998. Has there been a bigger Scotland win in the past decade and a half?
France were famously vanquished home and away in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2008. Gary Caldwell stabbed home the Hampden winner in October 2006, while McFadden’s thunderbolt in the Parc des Princes the following year is forever etched in the memory of Scotland fans.
Those landmark results should have sent the national team to the finals in on a wave of positivity. Instead, Scotland tripped up in sight of the finishing line, losing to Georgia and Italy to miss out on the party. Again.
In the years since, notable scalps have been scarce. Croatia, ranked the fourth best team in the world at the time, were beaten in Zagreb and Glasgow within four months in 2013. But they were ultimately futile victories with Scotland already out of contention for the following year’s World Cup.
There was a 3-2 home success over Israel at Hampden that banked a Euro 2020 play-off place and Nations League promotion. The Israelis are hardly a superpower in world football, though.
And, while Scotland prevailed in an epic play-off with Serbia in November to reach the Euros – ending a 23-year absence from major finals – it came after extra time and penalties.
For a sweeter 90-minute Scotland success, Austria is hard to beat.
Scotland get their ‘swagger’ back
It was also the perfect response from Clarke and his men amid growing doubts and criticism.
With a winless Euro 2020, followed by a chastening defeat in Denmark and scrappy victory over Moldova, the mood music was turning sombre until the Austrians were turned over on their own patch.
Pick a position and you’ll find a Scotland standout. A little over three months ago, Billy Gilmour hadn’t played an international above under-21 level. Six caps later, the precocious 20-year-old is the metronomic mainstay of the midfield.
Gilmour’s total of 44 passes was the highest of any Scotland player in Vienna, with only Callum McGregor edging him for accuracy. The Norwich City loanee gained possession 10 times – two more than any team-mate – to help relieve waves of pressure.
It was no one-off either. In Scotland’s triple-header this month against Denmark, Moldova and Austria, Opta stats have the Chelsea youngster ranked first in his team for touches (213), passes (171), successful passes (144) and possession won (23). For good measure, he was second for tackles (7) and chances created (4).
Grant Hanley and Jack Hendry – often overshadowed by more feted defensive colleagues Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson – were heroic in keeping the hosts at bay, while Dykes and Che Adams both had a role in the decisive penalty and delighted in ruffling Austria’s feathers.
“There wasn’t a failure,” said former Scotland winger Neil McCann on Sportscene. “Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes showed unbelievable workrate up front. John McGinn at times looked burst and then got reinvigorated. Jack Hendry is quickly becoming a key man at the back.
“This was a real big result. Steve Clarke has suddenly found a formula and belief in the squad that we can have a bit of swagger and get big results.”
Case for the defence
Scotland are never likely to be prolific scorers under Clarke, but a defensive masterclass can take you a long way.
Missing chances had been a recurring theme in recent months as Scotland had scored once in three games at Euro 2020 – then drawn a blank in Denmark and managed just a single goal against minnows Moldova.
Even the winner in Austria came from the penalty spot – and only after VAR intervened – but Scotland’s defensive solidity was the foundation of victory. Craig Gordon was so well protected his only meaningful save came in the 79th minute.
Willie Miller, a former Scotland defensive stalwart, was impressed, saying on Sportsound: “Clarke’s credentials are to put out a team that’s really hard to beat. Anything more than that is a bonus.
“Tonight they’ve created another good couple of chances, but his strength is to get teams organised. That’s why results like tonight make us all think he is the right man.”
Former Scotland defender and manager Craig Levein agreed: “In recent matches we haven’t defended as well as we needed to, but that was back to what Clarke does best. I’m thrilled with that performance.”