A VICTORY and a decent performance from an opening night appointment as Scotland manager is what Gordon Strachan indicated would leave him satisfied. He succeeded in the first aim, plainly; he just about got there with the second.
Strachan revealed that thoughts had not turned to Estonia until the day of the game. Much of the work done prior to that had been designed with forthcoming qualifiers against Wales and Serbia in mind, when the scrutiny really will become fierce. There was a cosmetic element to Wednesday night’s excursion at Pittodrie. Strachan was able to take a bow in comfortable surroundings while the players began the process of trying to meld together as a team once more. Many of them had not played with one another since a 2-0 defeat by Belgium in October, when they saw little of the ball in any case. A few in particular were reacquainting themselves with the international scene, no more so impressively than in the case of Chris Burke.
When Strachan was appointed, many expressed the hope that he might bring something of his own trickery and energy to Scotland’s play. Burke’s lively performance prompted some to draw parallels between the Birmingham City player and the Strachan of yore, though the manager instantly dismissed this. “No, I didn’t play wide,” was Strachan’s take on it yesterday. “I was inside out, I hated to be called a winger. We are small and ginger but that is about it. You can’t compare players to others. But he had to be brave, especially on a surface like that.”
Difficult though the conditions were, the 1-0 win was a step in the right direction and managed to create a sense of distance from the previous regime. Although Steven Fletcher latterly made peace with Craig Levein, he was in exile for the majority of his tenure. Burke, meanwhile, did not play at all under the previous manager. Charlie Mulgrew, who scored the match-winning goal from left back, had made only four previous Scotland appearances, the last of which came under Billy Stark, when he was one of few to catch the eye against Luxembourg, this time in a central midfield role. All three could feature against Wales next month. If so, it would grant the Scottish side some freshness, while helping apply Strachan’s signature on the team in yet bolder ink.
He suggested yesterday that he hadn’t thought too deeply about recalling Burke, and was taken aback upon hearing just how long it has been since the midfielder last played for Scotland. “I honestly didn’t have a clue how long he had been out of the Scotland set-up,” said Strachan. “I would have said a year or a year-and-a-half.”
In actual fact, it is almost seven years since Burke played twice in the Kirin Cup tournament in Japan, scored two goals, won a trophy, and then disappeared from the international scene. Combined with Wednesday night’s 45-minute man of the match performance, this short burst of activity could count as Scotland’s most productive international career to date. However, it would be wrong to imply that the intervening years were spent in complete exile.
Burke made a Scotland B appearance against Northern Ireland in 2009 under George Burley, before later that year telling the then manager that he did not wish to be selected “for the foreseeable future” due to his young son being based in Glasgow, while he, at the time, was playing at Cardiff City. He was, though, included by Levein for the friendly international meeting against the Faroe Isles in November 2010, but pulled out due to injury.
“I can understand that because your family comes first,” said Strachan of Burke’s temporary, self-imposed absence. “He seems a happy and content man now.” The manager chose to take him off at half-time, “because it doesn’t get any better than that”. He commended Burke’s replacement Robert Snodgrass for “taking up the challenge” and maintaining Scotland’s threat from the right.
Whether Burke has done enough to secure a starting berth against the Welsh remains to be seen; Birmingham have eight matches between now and then in what is a physically exacting league. Strachan, however, has plans to monitor the 29-year-old and ensure he is maintaining form and fitness: “My old assistant at Celtic [Garry Pendrey] goes to every Birmingham game. He says Burke is the best player Birmingham have got, along with Curtis Davies. I have also seen him many times live as well.”
Strachan has been careful not to overstate talk of a new era; how can he when he knows the lack of depth means he is required to rely on the same players as Levein, although with hopefully more positive results. “I would love to have had more time to work with them because there is talent there,” he said. It is in defence where the biggest questions remain; Mulgrew’s ball-striking is a significant asset, but where is he best employed? Finding a centre-back pairing to truly inspire confidence remains the most urgent task.
Mulgrew is an option to fill one of the berths but it would then leave Strachan short at left-back, with Rangers defender Lee Wallace not called upon in midweek. “He [Mulgrew] can play there [at centre-half] but then you say who have we got at left-back?” pointed out Strachan. “There is Paul Dixon at Huddersfield but he isn’t getting a game.We aren’t over-blessed with left-backs. Danny Fox at Southampton has only had one game [this year].”
It is fanciful to describe Wednesday night as a major leap forward from the previous regime. It simply isn’t possible to change the thinking and make-up of a team over a couple of days, one of which saw training held indoors due to the weather conditions. It might not even be possible to detect significant improvement over the course of the rest of a World Cup qualifying campaign. As Strachan returns home to the Midlands, there is still much to ponder.