The ball seemed to hang in the air for an eternity. As it started to drop towards the crossbar Connor Barron, Scotland’s smallest player, a substitute who had only come on six minutes earlier, started to wheel away. By the time the ball had crashed off the underside of the bar, rebounded down into the legs of the of the England goalkeeper, and had bobbled over the line, Barron was already sprinting towards the corner flag. His jubilant teammates were already chasing after him, arms flapping wildly in celebration.
By the time they had caught up with him, Barron had already crashed face first into the ground. As he lay underneath his teammates in a mountainous celebratory pile on, a million thoughts must have been running through his head. None more prominent, probably, than ‘just how did I get here?’.
This is because Connor Barron wasn’t supposed to be there. He wasn’t supposed to be scoring the opening goal of Scotland’s 2-0 win over England at Forthbank Stadium. He was supposed to be watching at home, like he did two days before on Tuesday when Scotland beat Qatar 7-0.
“I was having my tea when the phone rang”, grinned Barron as he described the moment he received his late call up to the Scotland squad. “I didn’t even know I was on a standby list. When I got the call I was absolutely buzzing.”
A space in the squad had become available due to an injury to Celtic winger Scott Cusick. At around 7 o’clock on Wednesday evening, manager Brian McLaughlin gave the call and just four hours later Barron had arrived at the Scotland camp. With the England game taking place the next afternoon, there wasn’t even time for a training session with his new teammates.
It wasn’t even as if Barron was going to have an easy start to his international career. His side were playing England, a significant step up in opposition from Qatar, who were brushed aside two days earlier. It was clear, even 10 minutes into the game, that England would be a much sterner test. England’s team, the back four especially, looked physically imposing and their midfield were classy on the ball. Claudio Osorio, in particular, ghosted around the pitch, finding pockets of space and moving away from defenders with a lovely touch.
Scotland found it difficult to get out. To their credit they stuck to their gameplan of playing the ball out from the back, but due to a combination of slack passing and a lack of options further up the field, Scotland found that the England attacks just kept on coming.
“Unfortunately in the first half we were just too off them”, McLaughlin said afterwards. “Disappointing thing for me in that half was that we didn’t trust our ability on the ball. We preach to our boys to trust your ability, trust your teammates, to take the ball. We just didn’t do that.”
Scotland almost went behind just two minutes before the end of the half. England striker Rafael Garcia did well to turn Scotland skipper Ben Cameron inside the box, only to trip over the defender’s outstretched leg. The referee pointed to the spot. There was nothing wrong with Nonso Madeuke’s effort. It was low, to the right and on target but Scotland goalkeeper Jack Newman did so well to dive to his left to make the save, before doing even better to block the rebound from the angle out for a corner.
“Jack saved us”, said McLaughlin. “It changed the game. It was an outstanding save and an unbelievable moment. From there we started trusting each and from then we finally saw all these young boys taking the ball and trying to make a difference.”
Scotland had a golden opportunity of their own after half time. This time it was Scotland skipper Ben Cameron who had the chance to open the scoring from the spot. This time his penalty was high but again it was saved by the goalkeeper. “Another outstanding save”, added McLaughlin.
At this point it was a miracle that the game remained scoreless. England were piling on the pressure, and Scotland were giving it a good go as well. Tackles and blocks were having to be made by both sides to keep the game goalless. “The boys did not want to let their teammates down”, said McLaughlin. “If they needed to run an extra ten yards they’d run eleven. They’d do that knowing that the boy beside them would do the same.”
Scotland winger Karamoko Dembele was withdrawn with less than 15 minutes left to go. He had looked bright in patches, but hadn’t had enough of the ball in dangerous areas to do any damage. However his replacement, and the only other player on either squad smaller than him, was about to make the real difference.
“I knew I had to make an impact”, said Barron. “Obviously I wanted to get on the pitch and get a game because I want to stay in the squad.”
It all came from another Scotland high press. Connor Smith, so busy all day alongside Dylan Forrest in midfield, won the ball back by intercepting a pass from the England goalkeeper Harvey Collins. He got a toe to the ball and suddenly it broke to Barron, 30 yards from goal and with the keeper off his line.
“The ball just fell to me” he said. “I saw the keeper off his line so I thought I’d just have a pop.”
10 seconds later and Barron was on the floor. He was Scotland’s hero. Five minutes from time Scotland’s Finn Ecrepont popped up at the back post to score Scotland’s second. The whole team, even the goalkeeper, celebrated in the far corner. Indeed, this was a fine team effort and a hugely impressive victory. But if this afternoon belonged to anyone, it belonged to Connor Barron. The man whose name wasn’t even in the squad at the start of the week, but is certainly now written in history.