The Premier League prominence of Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney, Scott McTominay, John McGinn and Che Adams has enhanced Scotland’s credibility. Tierney’s return from injury for this encounter was a huge boost for Steve Clarke. Yet in Billy Gilmour, the Tartan Army sense a further elevation of standards.
Three months after Thomas Tuchel implored Clarke to stick Gilmour in his team – the Scotland manager was entitled to retort that his counterpart at Chelsea had been routinely unwilling to follow his own advice – the 20-year-old’s name leapt out from the Wembley team sheet. Gilmour’s first Scotland start arrived in the most high profile of domains. “There is no element of risk when you have someone of Billy’s talent,” Clarke said.
By the time Gilmour left the field after 75 minutes, he had indeed intensified the hype; uncomfortable though that may be for an unassuming kid from Ayrshire. “It was a great performance by the whole team,” Gilmour said. “I was ready. I’m so proud to play against England, but to come here and do well makes it even better.”
Hope springs eternal from good results. It does, too, from the emergence of blue chip youngsters. Any fears Gilmour would be overrun – or overawed– by a stellar England midfield were unfounded. “Nothing fazes him,” Robertson said. “That’s why I believe he can have as many caps as he wants for Scotland. He’s got a huge future ahead of him, but the here and now is pretty good as well.”
Gilmour was unfussy and prominent during a bright Scotland start. His deployment alongside Callum McGregor in a deep midfield role was intended to allow John McGinn to support Scotland’s strikers. This also left Gilmour in regular conflict with his Chelsea team-mate Mason Mount. Gilmour was forced into fouling Mount inside five minutes as England sought to break but soon shrugged off the man two years his elder during another midfield joust. A penny for the thoughts of Frank Lampard, influential in the progress of Gilmour and Mount towards the Chelsea first team before being denied the opportunity to see the fruits of that particular policy.
By the interval, Gilmour had endorsed Scotland’s confidence in him, and was particularly composed in possession.
The ease with which so many of the Scots collected passes, even in tricky situations, was noticeable. It should be a given in this match that Scotland’s players will fight like lions, but there was an assurance to their play. As McGinn flew around like a tartan Tasmanian devil, Gilmour and McGregor quietly probed. It remains curious that Adams was a substitute for the defeat to the Czech Republic on Monday. His appearance in attack from the outset at Wembley delivered movement that visibly helped those who were playing behind him.
Tierney’s ability to drive forward from defence was a key tool that Clarke had been denied during Monday’s loss to the Czechs. In Tierney and Robertson, Scotland have arguably the finest left-sided defensive protection in this tournament. Both threw bodies on the line as England enjoyed a strong start to the second period.
Clarke’s vehement defence of Stephen O’Donnell after the nervous afternoon he endured at full-back against the Czechs was telling. Clarke’s tone and sentiment demonstrated that, despite obvious denials, the Scotland manager is well aware of what criticism flies his way. O’Donnell’s forcing of Jordan Pickford into a five stop on the half hour justified his manager’s faith. “Stephen was exceptional,” said Clarke, pointedly, later.
There is a sense that Clarke is overly cautious, but the selection of Gilmour delivered a counterpoint to that suggestion. The last time Scotland won a competitive fixture here was in 1999; Gilmour was not born until two years later. The intervening years have seen such a cast of also rans don navy blue that the buzz around Gilmour in his homeland makes sense.
Prior to the resumption of this rivalry, he had played around 40 minutes of international football. He had impressed as a second-half substitute against Luxembourg in a pre-Euros friendly, although his evening was cut short by injury.
Frustration aimed towards Clarke on the basis that other nations take more chances with younger players is undermined by Gilmour’s lack of club exposure. Spain’s Pedri may be 18, but he started 27 La Liga matches for Barcelona last season. Sweden’s faith in Alexander Isak is merited by virtue of regular appearances for Real Sociedad.
There has always been a danger that Scottish excitement over Gilmour comes without detailed knowledge of his capabilities, given that Chelsea use him so sparingly. Only via nights such as this can a body of evidence be compiled.
So far, so good. The ease with which he has transitioned into international football implies that he possesses some very special skills. “It was his big moment and he didn’t let us down,” said Clarke. “Nobody is surprised by that. Not in our camp.”