ADDRESSING any shortcomings caused by genetics goes beyond the remit of any football manager.
Gordon Strachan, though, believes his country’s cause need not be lost because, when it comes to pace and power, the overwhelmingly mono-ethnic nation he guides tend to churn out peely-wally smouts. The Scotland manager fell short of guiding his team to a result at Wembley in midweek not because the English proved themselves more technically proficient in the 3-2 win. It was the fact they were quicker and stronger in the key moments – their three goals – that was ultimately decisive.
Strachan concedes he can’t magic up a clutch of six-foot plus giants who cover the ground like gazelles. Chillingly for him, the Belgian side his team confronts in three weeks’ time in a World Cup qualifier at Hampden will teem with players who are both technicians and athletes. But he can hope for self-improvement from those not naturally physiologically blessed because one Scot who excelled at Wembley demonstrated what hard work can deliver.
“If you look at Shaun Maloney he’s the only small one I have seen who has built himself up,” the Scotland manager says. “He’s the only one who can physically look after himself and even then it’s not like some who are playing in the Premier League, that’s for sure. Every day at Celtic he and [Aiden] McGeady were first in and last away in terms of building themselves up. They were told to do that and then it became a bit of a habit. If you don’t have that you have to work at it. It might not be natural but you have to find some way of doing that. And when you look at the [under-] 21s you have to say physically and pace-wise they had a real problem. I watched up to the sixth goal [in the 6-0 defeat by England]. I looked at Billy Stark and thought: ‘I’ve been there’ and you just wanted that game finished.
“You saw the pace and power and strength and we need to find a way, somehow, to make them stronger.
“And it has not changed since I was an under-15 schools international. You had all these wee white, pimply geezers coming out against these guys who were six foot. I always remember Brazil v Scotland in 1982 and standing in the tunnel looking at those guys and the physiques they had.
“It was the first time we had seen six packs, they were standing with their tops off and we were like ‘what’s that? There’s something wrong with them, get the doctor’. Big Alex McLeish was standing there with his jersey off and we said to him: ‘get yer jersey on, you’re making yourself look stupid’. The left back Junior was only an inch taller than me and I felt I was reasonably strong. I kid you not, I felt like I was hitting a wall.
“That’s going back to 1982. But over the last hundreds of hundreds of years these guys have become genetically different from us.”
Strachan places first touch as the fundamental to prospering at the highest level. In that sense, the game against England, and the win in Croatia, did not cast Scotland in a desperate light. In such as Robert Snodgrass, James Morrison, Scott Brown and Maloney, Scotland had players who had the composure and confidence to hold and pass, even when the space around them was squeezed. Strachan has created a framework in two games on which Scotland can build. He admits he never thought that could be the case following dispiriting defeats against Wales and Serbia six months ago.
“In football everybody gets tested; the manager, the players,” he says. “And you get to the point where you say: ‘This is it’. You have to roll your sleeves up and do something about it. I still believe the seven days before the Croatia game, when we tried to do our shape, was really beneficial. If we hadn’t had that we couldn’t have produced the two performances we have had.”
Scotland would be further enhanced by the addition of the two Fletchers, Steven and Darren. Steven, expected back for Sunderland in the coming weeks, is the country’s most prized striker. Captain Darren, whose ulcerative colitis has sidelined him for the best part of two years, is not yet back in training.
“If you could imagine the two of them being in that team the other night then it’s a heartwarming prospect,” says Strachan. “We just need to get these boys back. And when they do get back they will definitely add to the talent, technique, professionalism and experience in the team.”