By Chris Marshall (@mershdoes)
Back in November it was the green of Easter Road that accommodated a competitive record crowd of 6,206 as Scotland began their Euro 2021, now 2022 qualifying campaign with a resounding 8-0 victory over Cyprus. An effervescent evening that seemed set to build on World Cup momentum. Eleven months later, as the world remains restricted by a global pandemic, the saltire faced gallery is replaced by marron expanses as the national side resume their qualifying campaign behind closed doors.
The Wheatfield, the Roseburn and the Gorgie stands lie empty bar a collection of flagged tarpaulins, a tribute to the fans who would usually gather to reminisce, shout and cheer from these spots. I’ve been fortunate to experience the new footballling normal a couple of times now but this is the first time in a venue so vast.
Pre-match the stadium routine remains the same. The announcer welcomes those in attendance, reading out the names of the visiting Albanians with a struggle to his tone before pushing up the fader as the rave tries to rise. The beats echo around Tynie, a stadium known for it’s hostility when even half full tries to come alive.
As the teams emerge from opposite stands a few camera clicks can be heard before the anthems, sung strongly on field but muted through faceless masks in ths stands. The Radio Scotland commentary team provide a chattering backdrop, like being in the warmth of your home whilst embracing the comfort of a late October chill on the Gorgie Road.
The whistle blows and the players take a knee as the commentator elaborates on a scene that should now be able to speak for itself. The game kicks off, the surge of noise is sort of there, but a smattering of applause will never replace a roar.
As I settle into the game it feels like you shouldn’t make a sound, a phone goes off and is then immediately turned down, the matchday rabble beaten down into silence by the layers of protocols and paperwork just to make it there. It’s all so disconcerting.
Scotland are dominant after a minute or so of settling down. It’s a side much changed from that one that lifted the Pinatar Cup back in March but is one still packed with WSL quality. Lucy Graham starts amongst a team of more familiar faces, a blistering start to her Everton campaign rewarded with international opportunity as Shelley Kerr let’s still wakening limbs from the SWPL representatives in her squad ease their way in.
18 minutes gone and Erin Cuthbert sees a half volley crash off the bar, it’s starting to feel more normal now. The familiarity of boot on ball disarming the feelings of strange. Scotland’s dominance against this level of opposition is refreshlingy routine in the women’s game as the feelings of eerie silence that have accompanied the game so far is replaced with a focus on what’s going on across a slick green lawn.
Tackles start to become more ferocious just as the atmosphere starts to subside again. Scotland are neat and tidy but it’s a little disjointed. An incomplete art, like a spider seeing their web devastated by a curious hand as it drags over nature’s most hidden corners. Another crunching tackle comes in, then another and another. Rachael Boyle sails close to the wind but it’s the Albanian’s who are now laying them in, as the referee fumbles between flashing yellow or red.
The volume of free kicks increase, the heat map around the Albanian area now glowing crimson. Finally a delivery, one from the elegant boot of Caroline Weir, reaches its target. A captains leap from Rachel Corsie sees her outrun the Albanian defence to emphatically head home. The net rustles as Bits and Pieces blare. A collective exhalation of breath coming on the pitch and off it. Despite their deficit the Albanian tackles still fly before another header, this time from Cuthbert, nips wide. The margin remains at one as the half time whistle blows.
The DJ slides the noize back up to eleven, it’s a Friday night after all, as the players make their way down their own tunnels. Keyboards tip and tap and introductions are made before the music stops and the games begin again.
Boyle has come off to be replaced by Kirsty Smith and her impact is nearly immediate but the Albanian defence are able to pull the ramparts up once again. I stretch and fidget to get the ultimate view as the perspex boxes that populate the press area obstruct tonight’s contest, speckled with the raindrops that had been spat out from above.
Albanian bodies still fly as they make lunge after lunge, a collision between bodies on ball occasionally punctuated with the rattling of a bucket seat as a clearance lands in the empty terrace. Scotland are in control but Albania are never out of it as the score remains at one, an increased animation from coach Vioresin Sinani confirms that suspicion as he shouts and gesticulates with an identifiable Balkan flair.
Martha Thomas and Leanne Crichton arrive, the latter for her 70th cap on a night where her work is to be done on the pitch as opposed to being found with a mic in hand off it.
The scene continues. A second goal kills it but the Albanians are starting to believe, “what if?” They’ve threatened nothing but all it takes is one break, one strike, one gust of wind to change the game. The sounds of the airwaves still provides the backdrop, Scotland are winning 17-7 in the rugby whilst something is going on with Hearts as they play Arbroath 80 miles away from their Gorgie home. Then a Scotland mistake, a stray pass from Hannah Godfrey is pounced upon, but the Albanian attacker has neither the quality or energy to capitalise, another half break but the attack crumbles again. A frustrated coach shouts but he knows that this is still an obstinate performance from a side far outmatched in terms of quality.
And then it happens. Martha Thomas, who has looked lively since her introduction, chests a ball and spins down the right hand edge of the area, her ball eventually making its way back to Cuthbert, who tees it up for Weir, her shot ricochets, and bounces and then spins low into the corner. Her arms raised as Bits and Pieces begin to assault the senses once again, with fifteen minutes to go the game is surely won.
A lot has been made of the conversations you can hear in football’s empty homes and while the sounds of Sinani could be heard during the most tumultuous of storms it is the quiet guidance of Kerr that is revealed on this night. The shouts, when they come are rare, but precise, with the Scotland manager preferring to wait for players to pass close-by, her message delivered with a conversationality that wouldn’t look out of place in a cafe or bar. The Albanians nearly get their moment, a free kick sails over the bar as the drama looks set to peter out but then the whistle comes to life one final time. Thomas is taken down in the area, a penalty is awarded and Weir steps up to stroke it home.
It’s three points and up the road. It’s been functional and unspectacular a fitting tribute to an arena that has been transformed from a cauldron to one giant sanitation station with safety the ultimate protocol. Onto Finland next, a point behind the Finns with a game more to play. Tuesday is when the games truly begin.
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