FORMER Celtic managers Gordon Strachan and Martin O’Neill are set to face each other at Parkhead when Scotland host Republic of Ireland in a Euro 2016 qualifier later this year.
Yesterday’s draw in Nice placed Strachan’s Scotland side and O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland squad in an intriguing Group D along with top seeds Germany, Poland, Georgia and international newcomers Gibraltar.
Scotland, who will open their campaign with a Friday night away fixture against Germany on 7 September, cannot use Hampden for their first two home games in the group as the national stadium will still be out of commission after being used for the Commonwealth Games.
The SFA board will meet to formalise alternative arrangements but it is understood Ibrox Stadium will host Scotland’s first home game against Georgia on Saturday, 11 October and that Celtic Park will be awarded the visit of the Irish on Friday, 14 November.
“We will discuss stadium venue plans as a board and with the relevant clubs in due course,” said SFA president Campbell Ogilvie after the computer-generated fixture list was issued by Uefa. Venues must be confirmed at least 120 days before each match.
O’Neill, who was succeeded by Strachan as Celtic manager in 2005, is relishing the prospect of a return to the stadium where he enjoyed the most successful period of his coaching career.
“I would absolutely relish taking the team to Celtic Park,” said O’Neill. “It would either be Celtic Park or Ibrox, I assume, although as Celtic Park has 10,000 more seats, Scotland would go with that.
“I’ve only been back to Celtic Park a couple of times, for charity games. Stiliyan Petrov’s was the most recent one. I haven’t been there for a competitive game. The torch has been passed on. But going back in this group would be terrific.”
Strachan met O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane, who played under the Scotland manager at Celtic, on the way into the Acropolis Convention Centre for the draw. “We were having a laugh and a joke as we usually do,” smiled Strachan. “But he’s a tricky geezer, Martin.
“He’s started already with the first handshake, trying to tell me that the Irish are in trouble already. Do us a favour! He doesn’t even have to have a press conference to start playing mind games.”
Scotland and Ireland will hope to be in contention for second place in Group D behind anticipated winners Germany. The top two in each group qualify automatically for the extended 24-nation finals in France, along with the third-placed side with the best record. The remaining eight third-placed teams will go into play-offs.
Strachan is aware of the perception Scotland should be able to take advantage of the increased number of places as they bid to reach a major tournament finals for the first time since France hosted the World Cup in 1998.
“I know there is a weight of responsibility on my shoulders but I don’t try to shrug it off,” he said. “I embrace it. I embrace the fact that I can make a whole nation happy with my coaching staff and with my players. I get that. It’s not something you can blank out.
“I realise there are more places up for grabs in this competition but I can’t take responsibility for that. I can only take responsibility for the way my team plays, not for decisions that other people have taken over the last five or six years.
“My responsibility is to try and take my team through and that is more than enough, thank you very much.”
Mind games or otherwise, O’Neill was fulsome in his praise of Strachan’s work so far in charge of Scotland and expects them to be serious rivals for a place at the finals.
“Scotland are very much an improving team,” said O’Neill. “They have got the squad, they’ve got the players if they get them all fit and ready to go. A lot of their players are playing big-time football.
“I think they will very much be in the mix for qualification. They are improving rapidly under Gordon. I don’t know why Scotland haven’t done as well in recent years, because they’ve got the players and the capability.
“Gordon is galvanising them at the moment. He’s got them together, there’s a good spirit. More than that, there’s a few of them who can play a bit.
“I met Gordon before he got the Celtic job. I think (Celtic’s major shareholder) Dermot Desmond had made his mind up about him and I met him to give him a rundown of the team and what I felt the strengths and weaknesses of it were. I left him a fairly decent side which he did very well with.”
Germany coach Joachim Löw also had complimentary words for Strachan, although he is unsure who will present the most credible challenge to his team in the group.
“Of course we are the favourites and we want to win the group,” said Löw. “But we are up against strong teams. I don’t know which is the strongest between Scotland, Poland and Ireland right now.
“Poland has some very good individual players such as Robert Lewandowski who play in the Bundesliga. But both Scotland and Ireland have a lot of power, dynamism and heart. We know it is always difficult for Germany when we play against these nations.
“Gordon is a really good guy and a real man of football. I’ve only seen Scotland on television or DVD in the last year or so, but after the World Cup this summer I will begin to study them closely.”
Gibraltar’s first participation in a major tournament following their acceptance as Uefa’s 54th member last year will see the British Overseas Territory play their home games at the Algarve Stadium in Faro while their own Victoria Stadium is rebuilt.
Allen Bula, the coach of the part-time Gibraltar squad, revealed that being bracketed with Scotland is a source of delight for the 30,000-population Rock.
“My assistant manager David Wilson is from Scotland,” said Bula. “It will be a dream for him to be with the team at Hampden Park. Before I left, the one thing he said to me was ‘Please make sure we get Scotland’.
“The whole of Gibraltar wanted Scotland. There is a big Scottish community in Gibraltar.
“My grandson is only small, but he has texted me and is over the moon because he is half-Scottish. There are a lot of links. My wife has Scottish blood through her great-grandparents, so we couldn’t have asked for more. It might be like another home game when Scotland come over to play.
“Gordon Strachan is bringing back that special passion to the Scotland team and I think that is needed. I see the team he is building going very far. They have the basis to be successful.”