On the biggest night of his fledgling career, perhaps the lasting memory for Billy Gilmour will be the ferocity with which his Chelsea clubmate Mason Mount pressed and harried him breathlessly without ever leaving him ruffled. The 20-year-old was the personification of calm in his first competitive Scotland appearance, against his nation’s biggest rivals and with progression from their first tournament in 23 years in the balance.
The headline after this gritty scoreless draw is that Steve Clarke’s team remain in with a fighting chance heading into Tuesday night’s Group D climax, where they face Croatia at the same time as England take on Czech Republic at Wembley. A win is required for Scotland but they are entirely warranted to believe it can be done because of the transformation Gilmour’s inclusion and the return of Kieran Tierney from injury offered them here.
For 75 intense minutes of an enthralling game that may have lacked quality but made clear that this rivalry still means something special, the diminutive midfielder shone brighter than anyone with a display that set the platform for a fully deserved draw.
The sight of Mount chasing him, dragging at his dark blue shirt and even occasionally getting near the ball added an extra layer of intrigue to this predictably feisty encounter on a sodden night that could not have been less similar to the conditions in which England opened their campaign against Croatia last Sunday.
Their duel felt a bit like a big brother trying to show his little brother that he is still the boss at times, with Mount behind many of England’s most dangerous attacking moves when given a breather from tracking his clubmate.
This was a different type Battle of the Bridge that should leave the academy coaching staff at Cobham with a deep sense of satisfaction. For a club that so long stockpiled talent, bidding farewell to too many in the past decade before the latest class were finally allowed sufficient opportunity to impress at the beginning of last season, to have two of the continent’s finest young midfielders duke it out on this stage must be a dream come true for those behind the scenes who have moulded them.
It should also provide head coach Thomas Tuchel with plenty food for thought considering the suggestions that Gilmour may head out on loan to play more regularly come August. On tonight’s evidence he is ready to light up the top end of the Premier League weekly.
For now, though, this was all about a famous Scotland result on enemy territory.
Early on it felt like there were as many fouls as there are marks in an Australian Rules game, referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz presumably not receiving the memo that these derbies are meant to flow unless a tackle is particularly brutal. The challenges were seldom dirty, more reminders (not that any were required) of the occasion and emotion.
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Surrounded by chaos, Gilmour looked unfazed. It was as if he had done this countless times before. He passed. He moved. He passed again. It was neat and tidy, for the most part supremely effective. And Scotland were a far better team for his inclusion
Gilmour immediately assumed responsibility for the bulk of Scotland’s set pieces – as much down to his dead ball prowess as his lack of aerial ability – and by the interval he still possessed a 100% pass completion rate.
Only Callum McGregor covered more ground than him up to the moment he was replaced by Stuart Armstrong in the 76th minute and for all the doubts that still linger around his ability to get stuck in it was notable to see him outmuscle Kalvin Phillips to win the ball early in the second half.
Mount, meanwhile, continued to be at the heart of England’s best work and forced a fine stop from David Marshall before Gilmour got a stern talking to from the referee for fouling Harry Kane as England counterattacked.
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The game threatened to open up at that point as both sides pushed for a goal that would never arrive but the bulk of the work had been done for Scotland, England’s wings effectively clipped.
When Gilmour departed proceedings the large contingent of traveling supporters on the west side of this arena started chanting his name.
A few minutes after the final whistle went, the England fans dispersing and their guests still celebrating wildly, it was announced over the deafening PA that he was the player of the match.
That inevitably led to a fresh round of “One Billy Gilmour” chants. Chelsea and Scotland should count themselves very fortunate that he is theirs.