SCOTLAND will be missing at least one first pick when the United States visit Hampden for Friday’s friendly. But, for the first time, it might not feel that way.
Even up until six months ago, the national team would have been considered significantly weakened by David Marshall deputising in goal for a sidelined Allan McGregor. That, however, was before Marshall became an English Premier League goalkeeper of growing repute with Cardiff City, and an eight-times capped keeper who can now boast a win for his country... even if his jinx ended with a victory away to Macedonia that injury prevented him completing.
Marshall, so long recalled in these parts only as the boy who kept Barcelona at bay, is now recognised as the 28-year-old man who has made it to the top of the game on merit by overcoming all manner of adversity, including rejection at Celtic and long-term injuries. And, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan says, by coming out of his shell.
“He has been very impressive recently. I had him at Celtic when he was a young man and he’s a very quiet individual. He had everything but he seemed to lack a personality once he walked on to the pitch. He’s found that personality now. He’s still a quiet fella but personality comes in different ways. He’s a Premier League goalkeeper now and he deserves that status.
“He could easily have hung on at Parkhead, done the usual thing where players hang on for five or six years and their career goes backwards. They become a domesticated animal and, when someone eventually chucks them out into the wild, they think: ‘What happens here?’ Too many Celtic players didn’t want to go out on loan but David wanted to play. He had to be transferred because he was too good to go out on loan.
“Like most people who are successful and grow and develop a personality, he’s had to take a few hits. And he’s done that. I’m glad he went out on his own and he’ll be glad now, too. He wouldn’t have liked it while he was taking those hits but it’s all part of growing up.
“When we were at Celtic I don’t think I ever saw David in my office, whereas Artur Boruc had his own chair – and sometimes I felt like flicking the switch on it. But what David has now is almost like an aura. It’s indefinable and it’s nothing to do with how noisy you are. The Cardiff players will stand in the tunnel now, look at him and think: ‘I’m glad he’s with us.’
“I’ve seen a lot of players who jump about and scream in the dressing room and then, when they get on the pitch, you never see or hear them. David has developed his character over the years. It isn’t a demonstrative one but it says: ‘I’m all right, I can deal with this. Fling anything at me – I’m fine.’ Between him and Matt [Gilks] – who is steady, allows nothing to bother him and is a good character to have around and a good goalkeeper as well – I won’t be losing any sleep over which one plays on Friday. The goalkeeping department is probably the strongest it’s been for a while. And, if Craig Gordon was fit, we’d really have a few riches.”
Scotland’s Strachan-inspired revival, which has delivered two wins over Croatia and that success in Macedonia since June, has certainly allowed the FIFA rankings to take on a new lustre with the national team jumping from 63rd to 35th in the latest calculations. Figures that didn’t wash over the Scotland manager. “I pay a lot of attention to the rankings when we’re moving up them,” he laughs. “It’s obviously nice when you’re moving up that ladder. But, when you get back after a match, you sit down and decide what you can take from it in terms of heart and confidence. That comes from what you’ve seen on the training field and on the pitch and that’s been reassuring for us. You now see the players doing certain things almost automatically. And, when we meet up again, we’ll be doing 80 per cent of the same things as before and 20 per cent will be trying something a wee bit different. And, when we work on the same things, we’ll be trying to make them even better. We won’t be changing the whole team because that would devalue it for anyone who might be making their debut. If new players come in, they want to know that there are a few established players beside them and that they’ll feel safe in their company.”
Defender Gordon Greer and midfielder Craig Bryson are two changes to the side that appear probable, however. “Greer has a chance, Bryson has a chance, because not only do I want to have a look at them, I think they deserve a wee bit for what they are putting into training,” explained Strachan. “It is very hard, because a couple of days before a team is announced, you can maybe sniff what might be coming and it has never affected them and that is good.
“You have to try to keep everybody feeling part of it, that is for sure. And there might be a chance to get Greer and Bryson playing, that is for sure.”
Two friendlies inside four days – Scotland are in action against Norway a week on Tuesday – could put the country’s momentum at risk. After watching Berti Vogts’ reign disfigured by friendly defeats suffered by makeshift teams, Walter Smith elected to take on as few as possible. Strachan sounds as if he might be more than a little sympathetic to the Smith approach.
“You have got to remember as football players, coaching staff and fans, we really like the competitive side of a game. If it is a real “friendly” then sometimes people think, I don’t get turned on by that at all. If it is a friendly game where you know you are going to be tested, then I think that is worthwhile. If it is a team where you think this is not worthwhile, where you win 6-0 it isn’t going to make any difference, or you get beat 1-0 then the whole world isn’t going to come to an end. What you have to do is make it exciting for the players, and say we are going to play against some decent players here. Play in some decent stadiums, too. It can be a problem if you go and play in a horrible stadium. It is not for money, I asked that question of the SFA. I said ‘do we play these friendlies for money’ and the SFA were like ‘no’. So if we are not playing them for money, you have to decide if it is worthwhile doing these games – I think now and then a good training session would suffice. But I am looking forward to this one – particularly the USA game. Jürgen Klinsmann is bringing them. There is a sparkle to that game.
“The US keep qualifying for World Cups, and are 13th in the world just now. And they are a nation who, when they put their mind to it, do well. There are a lot of players in America, when you go into the grassroots there are millions. What they do is think ‘let’s get out to Europe and learn our trade there’, which seems to have helped a lot of these United States players.”
Klinsmann boasts the fourth best winning rate of any US coach in a two-year spell, under-pinned by a record 12-game winning run this year that allowed the country to qualify for next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil and claim a Gold Cup victory in the summer. Strachan has crossed paths with the Spurs striker on the pitch, and speaks of him fondly.
“I played against him with Coventry against Tottenham. I was player/coach at the time and it was one of these games where we had to win to stay up, and we did that. That was a good night, 3-1, and he was good after the game, that was for sure. I always found him a good lad, even if people used to go on about his diving. He was a very intelligent fella and became a more rounded person. You can do that by getting away from where you started, seeing new things, seeing the world and picking up bits and bobs. A bit like Paul Lambert in Germany.”