IF – and it seems more likely now than on Friday morning – Gordon Strachan opts to stay on as Scotland manager, then the sometimes derided, so-called happy clappers of the Tartan Army deserve huge credit.
At least those who wish to see Strachan continue in the role of international manager will owe them thanks. Those who do not will have to accept the will of a group of people who, given the circumstances, had every reason to receive the players and Strachan with more coolness in Faro on Sunday night, as Scotland wound up their already defunct campaign with a 6-0 thrashing of Gibraltar.
What was the significance of the photograph at the end? Strachan asked for the players to pose with him, with the fans in the background”
Strachan has won league titles, he has won European trophies. He has played for Manchester United, scored in a World Cup. And yet so moved was he by the reaction of the fans after a far-from-pulsating fixture that he described it as among the most memorable nights of his career.
Strachan relished the professionalism of players who threw off the disappointment of last week to ensure no new low was reached against the Gibraltarians. It was, however, the fans who made the night. And no-one should underestimate the power they wield.
Craig Levein was a dead man walking after supporters turned on him in 2012 during the opening game of a World Cup qualifying campaign when he resisted sending on Jordan Rhodes against Serbia until it was too late. It illustrates just how successful Strachan has been in creating an impression of progress. These same fans are now hailing him after a failed campaign in which he found it equally easy to resist Rhodes. They are the people Strachan will now find it difficult to turn his back on as he prepares to announce his intentions. He is still on course to do so by the end of this week, possibly on Thursday.
Strachan will still speak to those in his life who have a say on such major decisions as committing himself to another two years (at least) of international management. Lesley, his wife, is reckoned by some to hold the key to her husband’s decision.
It seems unlikely she would wish to persuade Strachan to leave a post in which he has managed to accumulate so much goodwill, despite the deeply disappointing conclusion to a campaign that once promised so much. Strachan, for all that he protests that ‘it isn’t all about me’, is not without ego. He can’t have been unmoved by the show of support on the Algarve – and take it from someone who was there, he wasn’t.
He certainly seemed in far better spirits than after Scotland’s previous match, against Poland. There was some good-natured back and forth with the BBC’s Chick Young during the after-match press conference at the Estadio Algarve. “I’ll stay if you stay, we can both stay!” Strachan suggested to the veteran broadcaster.
“I’m not trying to be tricky, to keep everyone waiting,” he added. He is desperate to avoid people creating the impression that he is arrogant, or in any way disrespecting the position of Scotland manager. This is especially the case since he is sorely aware Scotland have not qualified. He has failed in his stated intention to at least reach a play-off place.
Strachan knows not everyone is cheering his name. Not everyone believes he should be given another chance after finishing fourth in the group. But it seems fair that he should be granted at least a few days to get his affairs in order, to check with others how they are feeling. As central as his wife in reaching a decision could be Mark McGhee.
It is hard to imagine Strachan being quite so enthusiastic about continuing if McGhee informs him that he’d now like to concentrate on a return to club management. They appear to come as a package, certainly where international football is concerned.
“I think it is only fair that you speak to everyone involved, see the reaction of the players, and other people, and see the SFA side – and family, that’s a huge thing,” said Strachan on Sunday. “You always refer to them when you make a decision.”
Crucially, though, Strachan then pointed out: “The experience has been far, far better than I thought it could ever be.” Even amid the disappointment and the gut-wrenching nature of last week’s elimination, he has savoured being Scotland manager. One less appealing thought could be the prospect of nearly a year without a competitive fixture. But whether it was walking around a golf course or bumping into guests at a wedding reception at the squad’s Mar Hall base, he has been revived since the loss of a last-minute equaliser to Poland. “Everyone, whether it be the granny or the youngest ones, were delighted with the way the players had played the other night, and felt sorry for us,” he said.
In a briefing on Saturday night, prior to the Gibraltar game, he already sounded as if he was swaying towards staying. And this was before the love bombing encountered the following evening.
Few expected such a positive reaction from the fans. There are those who view the Tartan Army’s theatrics with suspicion, who accuse them of revelling in failure. But the fans’ response on Sunday did seem exceptional, even given their reputation for loyalty. Was it blind loyalty? Or was it an understanding that Strachan is in the process of building something worth persisting with. Less positively, many may also have concluded there is no one else.
This saga will make amateur psychologists of us all. What was the significance of the photograph at the end? Strachan asked for the players to pose with him, with the fans in the background. Was it for posterity, a last glimpse of life as an international manager for Strachan to pore over in his dotage? Or did he wish to pin it to his office wall at Hampden to help stir the juices ahead of another qualifying campaign.
Did he want to convey the message: we are ready to go again? He has already denied knowledge of any Scotland player currently debating his own international future, amid speculation Scott Brown is pondering whether to step away, aged 30.
“None of the players have spoken to me,” said Strachan. “We’ll have a de-brief and see what is going on, but no-one has said anything.” Those players who have spoken in public since Thursday’s denouement have all urged the manager to stay.
Over the last few days, we have studied every move Strachan has made, every word uttered. When he shook the hands of his players at the baggage carousel in Glasgow airport in the early hours of Monday morning, it didn’t seem like it was for the last time.
It didn’t feel like goodbye.