GORDON Strachan names his first Scotland squad on Thursday, and will do so in Aberdeen.
Rightly, the Scottish Football Association is cranking up Strachan’s association with the city prior to an emotional return to Pittodrie a week on Wednesday, for the friendly fixture with Estonia. Ticket sales are a concern, of course, and Strachan’s visit can only help whip up further interest. It is also an acknowledgement that Strachan’s appointment is a broadly popular one, and one that it is hoped will restore some harmony between the SFA and the Tartan Army.
Wisely, Strachan is already braced for call-offs, given the identity of opponents who are at best only moderately exciting and the fact that a full card of both English and Scottish Premier League games are scheduled for this midweek, followed by a rumbustious weekend of cup football, in Scotland at least.
Still, the international friendly with Estonia is invested with more importance than might otherwise have been the case, following confirmation of not only Strachan’s appointment, but also those on his coaching staff. When once it looked as though Scotland would be in the hands of an interim manager once more, next Wednesday’s game truly does feel like the start of another chapter.
Hopefully the Strachan project will prove a successful enterprise, although Craig Levein had some words of warning for his predecessor in an interview in yesterday’s Scotland on Sunday. Now released from the fetters of office, he felt unburdened enough to tell it as he feels it really is.
After so long talking his players up, Levein conceded that Scotland simply don’t have “international class” performers all over the pitch. “I couldn’t say that as a manager, but it’s a fact,” he said. It isn’t perhaps the tone Strachan will have hoped Levein would strike in the days prior to an important first assignment for him. Strachan knows there is not much room for manoeuvre when it comes to naming a Scotland squad; the depth of quality is not there, so the bulk of those included in a typical Levein squad are likely to feature in one named by the current manager.
However, those said to have “awkward” relationships with Levein might now feel they can make some inroads on the international scene. Ross McCormack has made eight Scotland appearances for two different managers but never seems to have firmly established himself; his goal for Leeds United yesterday in their FA Cup win over Spurs will surely have prompted Strachan to include his name in even bolder ink as he makes preparatory notes before he confirms his squad later in the week.
Also expected to be included in a list set to feature as many as 26 names is Liam Bridcutt, a 23-year-old holding midfielder with Brighton & Hove Albion. He is one of Levein and Mike Oliver’s finds; he qualifies for Scotland due to a grandparent who was born in Edinburgh. His worth has, however, been assessed and re-assessed by Strachan’s assistant Mark McGhee, who also worked as a scout for Levein. Again, he distinguished himself by contributing to Brighton’s brave effort at the weekend against Arsenal, who eventually ran out 3-2 winners on the south coast.
It might be a new era, but the same rules seem to apply; if you qualify, and show potential, then let’s have a look. Levein was always keen to cast the net wide in his search for players, and Strachan will sensibly pursue the same path. Employing a discerning eye is the key, however. And in what has been a surprisingly upbeat season for domestic football in Scotland, it would be gladdening if Strachan listens to McCall’s recommendations about stand-out SPL players. Johnny Russell and Gary Mackay-Steven are two obvious ones at Dundee United, while Paul McGowan, the St Mirren playmaker, did nothing but enhance his reputation at Hampden Park yesterday, and proved that he is fit to grace such a setting.
It is now Strachan’s responsibility to help such players take the next step. With a combined cap total of 94, the new management team certainly knows what it takes to be international class.
Two strikes and you’re out is harsh on Zaliukas
As A player, Hearts centre-half Marius Zaliukas is not everyone’s cup of tea. But, credit where credit is due, despite the crushing disappointment of knowing he would not participate in the final if his side got there, the defender played a captain’s part and swept the first penalty into the net, setting Hearts on the way to a shoot-out win over Inverness at the weekend.
It again places in sharp focus the rule where two bookings are enough to see a player banned from a final. As a centre-half, Zaliukas is always likely to be involved in the rough-and-tumble end of things. There are some managers who would be asking questions had he not picked up a couple of bookings in the course of a cup campaign, although, admittedly, Hearts’ League Cup “campaign”, due to their European involvement, has so far amounted to only three games, compared to Inverness, who, including Saturday’s semi-final, had a four-game run.
It is why the Tynecastle side, and Celtic yesterday, had players walking a so-called tightrope even though they had collected only one booking prior to the semi-finals. Inverness and St Mirren players, meanwhile, were permitted the luxury of two bookings, with a third meaning they would be banned from the final.
Every season, it seems, there are scenarios where players have to deal with the “heartache” of a cup final suspension. Fair enough if it is because of a particularly rash or dangerous challenge in the semi-final, although Hearts midfielder Scott Robinson’s fate, after being sent off on Saturday for what referee Euan Norris interpreted was a wild tackle, provokes a certain sympathy, too.
At least in Zaliukas’s case, he has some sweet memories from not-too-long-ago of lifting a trophy at Hampden. Still, two bookings in three matches? For a centre-half? Does that really merit being banned from what, for some, might be a once-in-a-career occasion?