If England needed a wake-up call as they cruise towards Russia 2018, they received it at Hampden Park, where they were held to a 2-2 draw by Scotland in what will be remembered as one of the most unusual clashes in the history of international football’s oldest fixture.
For much of the match, things appeared to be drifting towards a rather dour scoreless draw, only for substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to strike midway through the second half. The prospects of a Scottish equaliser seemed scant, let alone them turning the game on its head, yet two fine Leigh Griffiths free-kicks in the space of three minutes did just that.
But, with the hosts on the brink of an unlikely and historic victory, Harry Kane was the benefactor of some benevolent defending to level matters in stoppage time.
In the absence – presumably prolonged – of Wayne Rooney, the 23-year-old Tottenham striker has been cast as Gareth Southgate’s new captain.
He came into this game buoyant, having finished the season in prolific form, but while he was the most effective of an England attack that looked blunt for much of the encounter, the manager must work out a solution to get more from his general.
Kane spent much of the game on the periphery, left isolated by those selected to supply him ammunition. Adam Lallana and, particularly, Marcus Rashford were ineffective in the wide areas, while in the heart of the field Dele Alli failed to link sufficiently with his club-mate.
Going into the Glasgow encounter, he failed to hide his high expectations. “Five in 17 isn’t terrible but if I can get a hat-trick at the weekend … that ratio won’t look so bad,” he told the media.
Ultimately, Kane only had three clear sights of goal over the course of the encounter, but that was more than his team-mates combined. He will feel he should have done more in the first half after doing well to pull down a cross, while he made the most of a complicated situation in the second to get away a fine header that Craig Gordon did well to keep out.
His telling contribution was left until deep in stoppage time, when a lack of Scottish concentration allowed him space just six yards out to fire into the net.
It had been anticipated that Kane’s return to action for the Three Lions – his first appearance under Southgate – would have been the catalyst for a more dynamic offensive display, yet England proved to be stunted and directionless for much of the game against a Scotland defence that has been their weakness for several years now.
But what is worrying for the England manager is that this is no one-off when playing away from Wembley. Prior to Saturday’s clash, they had scored only twice in their previous five matches that were not played under the famous arch – and one of those was a penalty against Iceland at Euro 2016.
Saturday’s check at Hampden was, then, a stern reminder to Southgate that, though his side remain well on course to reach Russia, they are by no means the finished article.
If England are to shed their reputation as a team that qualifies powerfully for tournaments but flops on the big stage, a more suitable system is required to get the best from one of the game’s most adept finishers. They got out of jail at Hampden.