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Scotland face uphill struggle after lock-out in Macedonia
By Nick Harris at Gradski Stadium
The temperature was in the nineties and the policing was from the Seventies, but it was the result here yesterday that will have the most distressing legacy. It came straight from the early Noughties, a depressing era that Scottish football had hoped was ancient history, and it leaves a sizeable dent in a nation's dreams of being in South Africa in two years' time.
George Burley had insisted before this match – his first competitive game in charge of Scotland – that it would not be a stroll in the park. It was not even a limp in a first half notable only by an absence of any threat from Scotland. In arrears inside five minutes to a goal from the industrious Ilco Naumoski, as a consequence of a soft free-kick, they did not threaten to get themselves back in contention until after the break. Too late.
"Naturally I'm disappointed we lost, and to concede a goal so early was not what we wanted," Burley said. "It took a while to adjust to the conditions and we didn't get close to Macedonia in the first half."
A boiling, miserable day was made worse for thousands of travelling fans denied entry to the ground because they had bought tickets for areas of the stadium designated for home fans. Aggressive stewarding by baton-wielding security men more familiar with dealing with their own hard-core "ultra"gangs led to conflict outside, although most of the peaceable Tartan Army dispersed to find bars with a television instead.
Burley's record now reads: played four, won none, drawn two (both at home) and losttwo (both away). Only yesterday's match was of any real consequence, of course, but that makes the outcome all the worse. Qualifying for the World Cup already looks like an uphill slog, and the next game, in Iceland on Wednesday, now looms as a fixture to fear rather than an opportunity to embrace.
Burley was upset at key decisions going against his side, and Scotland might indeed have had a second-half penalty. But he also described the second 45 minutes as "outstanding", which seemed to be overstating the case when, despite chances, his men could not score.
Scotland's first-half display was not the only shambles here. The Gradski Stadium is being renovated and is, essentially, a building site with one whole side covered in scaffolding and unsuit-able for occupation. The two ends both have small, temporary prefab seating blocks. When the work is finished, there will be room for 40,000 people, but far fewer were in attendance for this.
Even then there were blocks of empty seats, which made it all the more baffling that the police would not allow entry to Scotland fans who had bought tickets from locals. The Scottish Football Association estimated that there were between 1,500 and 2,000 locked outside, and the Scottish Football Association were aware early yesterday morning that there would be a problem.
The SFA's chief executive, Gordon Smith, said he had held a meeting with Macedonian officials to try to find a solution. Smith vouched that the Scots fans would cause no trouble. The authorities apparently accepted that but said they could not make the same guarantees on behalf of all their own fans.
The Macedonians were quite possibly right that their "ultras" are to be feared. Riot police entered the section of the stad-ium housing the most hard-core group in the second half to take down a massive banner tied to the fencing. It depicted the face of their Skopje-born "hero", Johan Tarculovski, who was sentenced in The Hague last month to 12 years in prison for war crimes against Albanians in 2001.
If the atmosphere was thus not only hot but seething, it still did not really excuse the Scots' slow start. The hosts went ahead when Stephen McManus challenged Goran Maznov, who went to ground easily. Goce Sedloski's free-kick was pushed on to the post by Craig Gordon but Naumoski, 25, a forward with SV Mattersburg of Austria, pounced on the rebound.
Macedonia had the run of the first period, with Gary