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Scotland 3-0 Ukraine: Scott McTominay shines in Hampden’s Renaissance

Scott McTominay was a standout player for Scotland in the win over Ukraine

In the early stages of the second half at Hampden, with the town gnawing at its fingernails as they awaited a goal the fans must have feared would never come, Scotland created five chances in a surreal 10-minute Spells, everything from near sitters for Stuart Armstrong to taking over the woodwork for Che Adams.

In the midst of this, Scott McTominay kicked Ukraine’s Ruslan Malinovskyi in the face, knocking him off the ball. On a night that provided Steve Clarke’s team with so many eye-catching moments, this one was understated but embodied Scotland’s relentlessness pretty much perfectly.

McTominay dispossessed Malinovsky and sent his team to attack again. He kept the pace up and brought his team back into shape. Malinovsky briefly gestured in the aftermath, implying a foul or simply expressing frustration. Small moments like this later made possible big moments as the goals fell in a flurry.

It was a selfless effort from McTominay and one of his best – if not his best – for his country. Mercifully restored to his natural domain in the middle of the park – if that doesn’t mean the end of his days as an ill-fitting Scottish centre-back then nothing – it was hard to take your eyes off him.

He’s so curious. Praised by a number of Manchester United managers – he is in some ways the second successor to Darren Fletcher – he is never too far from the front of the queue when fans start dishing out the flak. And in the first few weeks of this season it was a bottomless pit.

There are privileges that come with playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world, but built into the deal is a million eyeballs with your every move, an audience that can make or break you depending on your temper.

From McSideways to stepping forward

Amid the bitterness and resentment of United’s dismal opening games of the Premier League season, fan groups lined up to bash their players. McTominay was taken out of the roots at some points. Examples abound, but the fans’ YouTube channel with 1.4 million subscribers isn’t a bad place to start. After losses to Brighton and Brentford, McTominay was disemboweled.

“Scott McSideways” was the main reason for Manchester United’s failure. He’s a championship player. A headless chicken. He couldn’t run a burger shop, let alone the United midfield. Just the fact that he was somewhere close to the team got the presenter’s blood pumping. It was a 10-minute deconstruction that was viewed by 161,000 people with 3,300 likes and zero dislikes.

The likelihood of McTominay exposing himself to this video is also probably zero, but then he wouldn’t have to see it to know what’s being said. He was at United all his days. He gets it. Since then he has played every minute of United’s four-game winning streak in the league and has been outstanding in most of them. It’s the kind of reaction that has kept him at the club for so long.

He’s had to navigate heavy traffic at Old Trafford since his United debut in May 2017. Nemanja Matic came in for £40m, Fred was signed for £52m, Donny van de Beek came in for £35m and now Casemiro, one of the best defensive midfielders of his generation, is in the house with a £65m price tag.

At £89m, Paul Pogba was a previous recruit. McTominay has seen some of them leave the club and others are on the bench including Casemiro Chief. The academy graduate, who didn’t cost her a penny, is holding on.

Scott McTominay applauds the crowd at Old TraffordMcTominay has kept Brazilian duo Casemiro and Fred out of the star line-up at Manchester United in recent weeks

When he dominated midfield in Hampden on Wednesday, the bloke was one to admire. All that stick, all that time he’s spent in boots in the Scottish defence, all that turbulence in his club life and yet he keeps driving.

One thing we do know about McTominay is that resilience runs through his veins. As an 11-year-old – well before his big growth spurt – he was the shortest player on his team at United and yet all who watched knew he had the biggest heart.

At 16, he lost a lot of crucial playing time due to injury. Jose Mourinho gave him his United debut at 20 and held him up to others as a role model. Mourinho loved his physicality and his mentality. He needed that power. Fewer players would have folded under his circumstances.

In the revival under Erik ten Hag, McTominay blossoms again. He’s said by those at United and Scotland to be an information sponge and while he’s not the social type he has that presence that makes him a leader. Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick all mentioned at different times that he could be a future United captain. Picking him ahead of Casemiro, Fred and Van de Beek, Ten Hag is another United manager to put his faith in McTominay.

Scotland has found itself again

Wednesday was a renaissance night for McTominay and for every other Scottish player, a sign that June’s cheerlessness was likely more of a bump in the road than something more profound. The team has found each other again. They played like a group of players with confidence.

And there’s a lot to believe in when they show up with the kind of attitude they showed against Ukraine. This is a good collection of players. Clarke’s starting line-up featured eight Premier League players. Of the 16 spectators, 10 came from England’s top division.

There was also Craig Gordon, Scotland’s player of the year last season, Callum McGregor, Celtic captain, Jack Hendry, who plays in Serie A, and Lyndon Dykes, who scored two goals. Dykes has now scored eight goals in 23 games for Scotland. To put it in context, that’s more than Steve Archibald (four of 27), Charlie Nicholas (five of 20), Andy Gray (seven of 20), and Gordon Durie (seven of 43) managed. He is one behind Kevin Gallacher, who has 53 caps, and just three behind Joe Jordan, who has played 52 times for his country.

Scotland ‘wanted to show what it was all about’

Just three of the players Clarke fielded Wednesday are in their 30s – Armstrong and Kenny McLean are 30 and Gordon is 39. There were two full-backs in their 20s. Billy Gilmour is only 21 and will come back into the picture when he is able to take a break from his club career. The average age of the players was 26.7 years.

That’s pretty healthy, but it won’t mean much unless Scotland maintain the intensity they showed against Ukraine.

They meet the Republic of Ireland in Hampden on Saturday. Scotland looks stronger on paper but that was also said in June. The Irish had Victory rush in Dublin that Clarke’s team couldn’t handle. Scotland had that lead themselves on Wednesday. Repeating it again and again is the challenge ahead of them now.

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