WHEN Scotland had failed to take the lead against San Marino after an hour of a European Championship qualifier in Serravalle back in 1991 the late, great Ian Archer memorably remarked in the BBC radio commentary that they were “drawing 0-0 with a mountaintop”.

The national team recovered from that shaky start to record a narrow 2-0 win and qualify, as they were wont to do back in those days, for the finals in Sweden the following year.

Yet, few who follow the fortunes of the current side will be confident today of them being able to emulate that achievement in the coming months despite the fact the triumphed by an identical margin to their predecessors in the shadow of the Apennines here yesterday.

They still face an uphill task to make it through to Euro 2020 – and their campaign will rapidly fall off a cliff if they acquit themselves as woefully as this again in future.

This was a fairly thankless exercise for Alex McLeish and his players. No performance or triumph would have placated their critics in the wake the inept display and dire 3-0 defeat they suffered at the hands of Kazakhstan in their opening Group I fixture in Nursultan last Thursday.

The outcome was also meaningless. Results against the bottom-placed side in six team sections are disregarded at the end of the campaign. Their hosts, the fifth smallest country in the world with population smaller than that of Coatbridge, will once again finish last.

A humiliation was ultimately avoided against opponents who have won one match in their entire history and are in bottom spot in the FIFA World Rankings. However, at times in the second-half, as Scotland struggled to create or convert chances and San Marino pressed forward, it looked as if the unthinkable may happen.

A draw would possibly have spelled the end of the manager’s reign. But this may well prove to be nothing more than a stay of execution. How Scotland fare against Cyprus at Hampden in June is critical to his and the country’s future. There needs to be a dramatic improvement to safeguard both.

When Johnny Russell netted with 16 minutes of regulation time remaining to finally, on the occasion of his ninth cap, open his account at international level the relief in the away dugout in the San Marino Stadium was palpable. A triumph was recorded at the end of the 90 minutes. But it somehow felt every bit as bad as the debacle four days earlier.

Scotland were booed at half-time and full-time by their own supporters and the displeasure among the members of the Tartan Army who had travelled to the enclaved microstate to see their team play was easily detectable throughout proceedings.

The blazers were also singled out for abuse. Chants of “sack the board” and “f*** the SFA” started to ring out around the stadium as the game wore on and the scoreline remained 1-0. There were no wild celebrations in the stands, on the sidelines or in the technical area when the final whistle blew.

McLeish sprang a couple of surprises in his starting line-up by bringing in Kenny McLean of Norwich City and Russell of Sporting Kansas City. The introduction of Andy Robertson, Stephen O’Donnell, Ryan Fraser and even Callum Paterson up front had been expected. But McLean and Russell? Nobody had seen their involvement coming.

The fact they both netted goals justified their inclusion to an extent. McLean also scored his first goal for his country in the fourth minute when he stooped and met a Fraser delivery from the left and sent a glancing header beyond the clutches of opposing goalkeeper Elia Benedettini.

Scotland had played three times in Serravalle previously and had never, in the course of recording three 2-0 wins, once netted in the first-half. It was an encouraging start. But it was just as well that the former Aberdeen man broke the deadlock so early on. Their hosts sat back and played for long spells with nine men strung out across their penalty box.

As well as making six changes – Liam Palmer, Graeme Shinnie, John McGinn, James Forrest, Oliver Burke and Oliver McBurnie all dropped out - there was a change of formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1. McLean and Callum McGregor were deployed as deep-lying midfielders. But the players looked nervous and uncomfortable with the new system.

Stuart Armstrong, fortunate to retain his place after a poor showing in three days earlier, could have built on the visitors’ tally in the 21st minute after being supplied by Russell. But Benedettini produced a fine double save to deny him. Fraser shelled a free-kick way high the crossbar shortly after.

Marc McNulty, the Hibernian forward who had won his first cap against Kazakhstan three days earlier, replaced Paterson after the Cardiff City man suffered an ankle injury landing awkwardly. But the Reading loanee was unable to make an impact. There were far too many misplaced passes and bad decisions, in the final third especially, and far too little composure on the ball.

San Marino had their opportunities. Jose Hirsch shot into the side netting of Scott Bain’s goal and Mirko Palazzi fired wide with an ambitious long-range effort in the first-half.

Matters didn’t improve greatly in the second-half. San Marino had a penalty claim dismissed in the 52nd minute when Filippo Berardi went down following a challenge by McKenna. The Scotland players breathed a sigh of relief when the match official, rightly as there had been minimal contact, waved play on. Palazzi, though, shot wide just a minute later.

McKenna got on the end of a Fraser corner, but missed the target with a header. McLeish then removed McGregor and gave Scott McTominay a chance. But his charges continued to toil badly.

Forrest, a surprise omission, came on for Armstrong in the 71st minute and helped to create the second goal shortly after taking to the field. He broke down the right and squared across the San Marino goal. McNulty dummied and it the ball fell to Russell who stepped inside before firing into the net.