THEY scrapped doggedly to the bitter end as they always do. They threw themselves in to every 50/50 challenge without any regard for their own wellbeing. They never gave up hope until the referee blew the whistle to bring an end to 90 astonishing, ill-tempered but ultimately depressing minutes.

However, as has been the case far too frequently since Scotland last reached the finals of a major tournament 19 barren years ago, all of their efforts proved to be insufficient for them to achieve their aim.

There have been a few close things since France ’98. Did any of them, though, hurt quite as much as this latest harrowing and dismal failure? The national team will not be in the Russia 2018 play-off draw in Zurich a week tomorrow after being beaten to second place in Group F by Slovakia on goal difference as a result of this draw.

Loading article content

It could all have been so very different if Darren Fletcher had showed greater ruthlessness when a scoring chance fell to him in the Slovenia penalty area with 12 minutes remaining and Scotland trailing 2-1. The captain fired over the crossbar when simply getting his effort on target would probably have restored parity.

Yet, in truth, Scotland had another outstanding display by Craig Gordon in goal to thank for keeping their hopes of victory, and progressing to the next stage of the competition, alive. The Celtic man pulled off a succession of excellent saves in a second half which the home team dominated. His team would have been beaten comfortably without him.

That Gordon Strachan’s men had given themselves a chance of finishing runners-up in their section going into the last of their 10 qualifying matches was impressive given that they had been languishing in second bottom spot after their opening four games.

But their poor start – they drew 1-1 at home to Lithuania and were thrashed 3-0 away by Slovakia in their second and third outings at this time last year – left them with just too much to do and came back to haunt them on what was another utterly wretched end to a campaign last night.

The injury-time goal which Strachan’s men allowed Harry Kane to score in the meeting with England at Hampden in June, too, proved costly. Had they managed to protect the 2-1 lead which Leigh Griffiths’s late free-kicks had given them then they would not have surrendered second place yesterday and would have achieved their objective.

Given that Stuart Armstrong, Scott Brown and James Morrison, three men who would have been automatic starters had they been fit, were all unavailable for the final match, a draw was arguably no disgrace.

Their opponents had not been beaten at home in four previous qualifiers against Slovakia, England, Malta and Lithuania and had not conceded a single goal in those outings. They showed why by enjoying by far the better of proceedings. Two second half goals from Roman Bezjak at a free-kick and then a corner looked to have given them the result they were wanting.

Strachan threw on Ikechi Anya for Chris Martin, Robert Snodgrass for James McArthur and Steven Fletcher for Kieran Tierney after his side, who had taken the lead through a sublime Leigh Griffiths strike, had fallen 2-1 behind.

When Snodgrass latched on to a Darren Fletcher through ball and hooked a shot beyond Oblak and high into the net with two minutes remaining there was a possibility, even just a slight one, that Scotland could secure the victory they were striving for. They certainly couldn’t be faulted for not showing any heart or fight. But the quality of the all-round display was lacking.

The spotlight will now fall on Strachan and whether he will continue in his role as Scotland manager. He insisted he had not given his own future any consideration afterwards and will take time to mull over his position in the coming days. He will still have some backers, but a sizeable number of supporters will feel it is time his four and a half year tenure comes to an end and a new man be given an opportunity.

Would it have been a different story if John McGinn and Callum McGregor, hungry young players who have been performing well for their club sides, including, in the case of the latter, at the highest level in Europe, had been given a start earlier? Many will think it would have.

Strachan made two changes, one of which was injury enforced, to the side he had fielded in the 1-0 win over Slovakia three days earlier. Morrison dropped out after picking up a calf strain and James Forrest was relegated to the bench. James McArthur and Chris Martin came in.

The formation changed from the tried and tested 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-1-1 that had worked so well after Martin was brought on in the second half of the game on Thursday evening.

Scotland took the lead in the 32nd minute after Fletcher had floated a delivery into the Slovenia area from wide out on the right. Aljaz Struna cleared it under pressure from Bannan and it appeared as though the danger had been dealt with.

However, James McArthur did superbly to outmuscle Jasmin Kurtic and head the ball over the defence to Griffiths who positioned himself to shoot as the ball came down and then volleyed beyond Oblak from an impossibly acute angle. Cue delirium in the stands.

It was the first time in this campaign, in nearly 400 minutes of competitive football, that Slovenia had conceded a goal at home and it took a special finish to beat them.

Slovenia manager Srecko Katanec had clearly not been at all impressed with what he had witnessed in the opening 45 minutes as he made two substitutions at the start of the second half. Roman Bezjak came on for Jan Repas and Nejc Skubic took over from Aljaz Struna. Bezjak made a huge difference to his side.

Bostjan Cesar, the Slovenia captain who was wining his 100th cap, was ordered off in injury time for a shoulder barge on Christophe Berra off the ball. Many members of the Tartan Army will look to show Strachan a red card.