SCOTLAND's season came to a vibrant, hugely enjoyable conclusion last night with a share of the spoils in a busy and entertaining draw against Nigeria in London.
Not until September 7, and the opening Euro 2016 qualifier in Germany, will Scotland play again but their momentum will easily last for the next three months. They were close to delivering their fourth consecutive away win until conceding a late equaliser with one of their few errors at Craven Cottage.
Nigeria are going to the World Cup finals in Brazil. They finished third in the African Nations Cup earlier in the year. But Scotland were the equal of them last night and played with spells of real verve and belief. Charlie Mulgrew and an own goal twice gave them the lead.
Loading article content
Nigeria had Norwich City's Joseph Yobo and Shola Ameobi, the striker released by Newcastle United, on from the start and Chelsea's Victor Moses and Peter Odemwingie of Stoke City came on as substitutes. Celtic's Efe Ambrose also came off the bench with a quarter of an hour left. It was an important night for them, so close to the World Cup, but although they had a stronger second half they could not dominate or suppress Scotland when Gordon Strachan's men began to tire. Ikechi Anya and Andrew Robertson were prominent on a night with no real failures.
What great fun it all was: the atmosphere was loud, vibrant, excited and joyful. The Nigerian fans made a deafening din, their fans standing, bouncing and screaming in the stands when their team got a free-kick or a corner which might yield a goal. They blew horns and vuvuzelas. Scotland's large support had a job on its hands to match the decibel level.
The build-up had been overshadowed by unpleasant suspicions of possible match-fixing. "Nigerians don't fix matches, we win them" said the placard held by one of their supporters outside the ground before the game. Who would have thought a game with such an ugly context could become such a happy, carefree contest?
Mulgrew's opening goal was unorthodox but very skilful. Scott Brown took a short corner to Ikechi Anya, who fed it square to James Morrison. His low shot arrowed towards Mulgrew and with a combination of quick thinking and fine technique he adjusted himself and flicked the ball back across goal and inside the far post.
Scotland should have been 2-0 up when Maloney delivered a corner into the heart of the box and Grant Hanley came crashing in to on Austine Ejide. The goalkeeper simply threw the ball into his own net from the force of the challenge. The goal should have stood but English referee Lee Probert disallowed it for a foul.
Nigeria equalised four minutes before half-time. Mulgrew had strayed a little too far upfield and that allowed Michael Uchebo too much room when the ball broke to him. The big, ponytailed Cercle Brugge striker turned and ran at goal. His powerful shot was going wide until it struck Hanley on the chest, a deflection which rerouted the ball past the helpless Allan McGregor.
Scotland were bright and assured. They attempted nice, fluid moves which did not always come off but were ambitious and pleasing on the eye. They consistently tried to find runners from midfield with balls through and over the top of the Nigerian back four.
Mulgrew and Brown were the pillars at the base of midfield with Morrison ahead of them and Anya and Maloney offering wide support to Steven Naismith. Anya almost scored right at the start when Morrison's ball over the top put him through for a shot across goal which deflected off Kunle Odunlami and kissed the outside of the far post.
There was a new face for the Scotland support when Chris Martin came on for Naismith at half-time. The Derby County centre forward was predictably eager on his debut and forced a save with a toe-poked shot. Another Derby man made his first international appearance later in the second half when Craig Forsyth replaced the hugely impressive Robertson at left-back.
Strachan had preferred McGregor to David Marshall for this one. The two goalkeepers are of equal status but McGregor justified his selection with an excellent reaction save at the start of the second half. Scotland's defence was opened up but McGregor saved with his legs to deny Ameobi.
It was end-to-end, relaxed, open and compelling. Scotland regained the lead when Alan Hutton fired a cross to the near post which a Nigerian defender flicked towards his own goalmouth, under pressure from Morrison, before Azubuike Egwuekwe completed the job by hacking his attempted clearance into the net. Ten minutes later, when Maloney slid in to convert another cross from Hutton, Scotland thought they had scored again but correctly the flag was raised for offside.
Uche Nwofor seemed to pass up his best chance of a second Nigeria goal with a header over the bar five minutes from time, but in stoppage time he saved them from defeat. Gordon Greer had made a saving tackle in the box but Hanley was dilatory in completing the clearance and Nnamdi Oduamadi took the ball and fed it to Nwofor to score. The celebrations were wild. Scotland had been denied a win with one of the final kicks of their season.
The disappointment was quickly absorbed. When the players went to acknowledge their supporters behind the goal at full-time, they received a standing ovation.