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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jamie Jackson at Hampden Park

Conor Bradley strikes to give Northern Ireland victory over struggling Scotland

Conor Bradley (right) reacts after his first goal for Northern Ireland
Conor Bradley (right) reacts after his first goal for Northern Ireland. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

Scotland are gun-shy and in plummeting form precisely at the wrong time: less than three months before they stroll out at the Allianz Arena to face Germany in the Euro 2024 curtain-raiser.

This defeat came because Steve Clarke’s side lacked an edge in attack, and stretches their run to a hardly magnificent seven consecutive matches without a win, and a second reverse in a row.

After their 4-0 defeat against the Netherlands on Friday, Northern Ireland’s more modest challenge was a chance to restore morale. Except the visitors did not read the script, and Andy Robertson hobbling off ­deepened Scottish woe.

Clarke’s media manner is taciturn yet tension could still be detected when asked about the defeat and the jeers his team garnered at the end of each half.

“We’ll be ready for June,” the head coach said. “It is what it is. I’d rather be in our position [Euro 2024 qualified] than unfortunately Wales being knocked out on penalties so it’s not all doom and gloom.”

Asked about what, exactly, ­Robertson had injured and a prognosis, Clarke was more tight-lipped. “Not for me to comment,” he said. “Let the injury take its course, he’ll go back to his club and they’ll assess it – hopefully not too serious.

“The performance was OK – the result obviously disappointing because we wanted to win the game. I’m not counting [the winless run], we’re going to be ready in June, that will be the most important thing.

“We tried our best to open them up. For us, this was a totally different type of game to what we’ve had recently when you’re playing the top teams, where we maybe needed a bit of craft and guile at the top end of pitch.

“We couldn’t find it, that’s why we lost the game, we had the lion’s share of possession and 14 shots but not enough to find the back of the net.”

Conor Bradley’s first international goal brought his nation’s first triumph against their Celtic neighbour since 1983 and so Scotland must wait until the trip to Gibraltar in June to try to halt this rot.

After early flashes of Scottish ­fluidity – via a Scott McTominay dribble and John McGinn’s blocked shot – there was none of the piercing play witnessed in Amsterdam before the capitulation against the Netherlands.

Instead, disaster arrived for the home team and Nathan Patterson. The right wing-back’s clumsy touch initially ceded possession and though recovering well, running back along his flank to retake control of the ball, he overelaborated, and returned it to Bradley. The Liverpool right-back pivoted, shot, and the ball brushed off Jack Hendry, looped over Angus Gunn and in.

Injury followed insult as ­Robertson, who had needed treatment earlier, went down again and was replaced by Lewis Ferguson. By half-time Scotland would have been two down if Shea Charles had not missed badly after another ­Patterson error allowed Michael O’Neill’s team to break.

Now came the Tartan Army boos so their men had 45 minutes to turn the scoreline around. McGinn tried to do so in the first moments but his effort skidded over the turf and Bailey Peacock-Farrell collected.

A combination down the right between Patterson, Lyndon Dykes, McGinn and Patterson again was as good as anything those in dark blue fashioned. But the Patterson cross that ended this again went straight to Peacock-Farrell in a summation of Scottish bluntness before goal.

A microcosm of their frustration came soon after. One more ­Patterson miscontrol had Scotland turned and as Brodie Spencer hurtled down the left, over came Billy Gilmour to chop him down.

More positive for the hosts was a McGinn free-kick that floated to Liam Cooper in a packed area but the defender could not direct his header. Then McGinn wanted a penalty for what he thought was a Spencer shove but Robert Jones, the referee, was not interested. Now Clarke made a move, substituting Gilmour and Dykes for Ché Adams and Kenny McLean. But still he came up short.

O’Neill said: “It was a very good performance. We knew this was going to be a tough challenge and we had to be very good without the ball, it’s something we worked very hard on and hammered that message home to the players.”

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