WHEN the Uefa president, Michel Platini, first revealed six years ago his intention to increase the number of qualifiers for the 2016 European championship from 16 to 24, the proposal was instantly and enthusiastically endorsed by his new sidekick, the former Scottish FA chief executive David Taylor.
The latter’s rush to embrace the change, understandably, was rooted in the belief that, with so many places at stake, even the perennial under-achievers of the Scotland national team could secure qualification, at last banishing the biannual ordeal of disappointments Taylor had experienced throughout his eight years at Hampden.
Now, on the eve of the draw in Nice for the qualifying campaign, the Scots’ continuing difficulties with producing players of genuine international quality appears to have left their prospects of reaching a championship no better and no worse than they have been since the last distinction at the World Cup in France in 1998.
If optimism arises from the realisation that 23 places are available (hosts France are there by right) to around only 40 contenders – that is, after discounting seriously disadvantaged minnows such as San Marino and Gibraltar – it should be tempered by the format of the group stages.
The top two teams in each of the nine sections will go through, along with the best of the third-placed sides. The third places in the other eight will then play off to complete the field. Having plunged into the fourth pot of seeds, Scotland will require, as an absolute minimum, to beat their official rating in order simply to make what might be termed the repechage.
In this regard, the most encouraging factor is not the capabilities of the players, but the identity of the manager. Whatever else may be said of Gordon Strachan, he is endowed with the first prerequisites of any potentially successful manager: credibility and persuasiveness.
Only a footballer afflicted by a head-turning narcissism – and, therefore, exclusively pre-occupied with himself – could come into Strachan’s company and fail to see that he was in the presence of a football man who should be taken very seriously. In Strachan’s experience, some have made this mistake and encountered the sobering discovery that the manager was immeasurably ahead of them in experience, knowledge, insight and talent.
Whatever flaws the little former midfielder may show in any given area of the many that have to be mastered in his job, it is his powerful character that is his most meaningful strength.
Like his predecessor at Celtic, Martin O’Neill, and such as Walter Smith and Dick Advocaat at Rangers, Strachan exudes plausibility and an instinctive abhorrence of the phoney. Compare the success of these four at Parkhead and Ibrox with the failures of the Glasgow giants under the unconvincing blandness of Tony Mowbray and Paul le Guen.
It is Strachan’s ability to infuse players with belief that leads to such improbable achievements as reaching the last 16 of the Champions League twice with a relatively ordinary Celtic team.
And it is in this context that he is likely to be Scotland’s most powerful asset in the trials that lie ahead. If the Scots’ assignment is to achieve a target that is, officially, beyond them, it is one for which, at least, they have engaged a specialist.
Phrases that make your ears bleed . . .
1) “In those circumstances, the forward should always get the benefit of the doubt”
Most often applied to the awarding of a debatable penalty kick, this is a patent absurdity on at least three counts. First, where is it written that the forward, or any other specified participant in any on-field incident, should be afforded some kind of preferential treatment?
Secondly, where there is doubt, there is no penalty. This is beyond debate, a fundamental principle of law and justice. If there is doubt, there can be no conviction.
Thirdly, uncertainty exists only inside the pundit’s head. The overwhelming majority of referees’ decisions are utterly uncluttered by doubt (it’s known as whistler’s ego).
2) “The shot went straight down the goalkeeper’s throat”
This evokes childhood images of a cartoon ostrich with a spherical or brick-shaped object causing a comical obstruction inside his elongated, narrow neck and a quizzical look on his face. Nowhere, however, is there to be found a live, human goalkeeper during a match choking on a size 5 football.
3) “He worked his socks off”
In the entire history of the game, is there a single recorded instance of a footballer leaving the field at the end of a match wearing a pair of boots –and no socks? This is reminiscent of a memorable line by a celebrated American surrealist comedian, who claimed to have met a man with wooden legs – and real feet.
4) “He was red-carded for head-butting his opponent”
Despite a forensic search, no trace can be found of an incidence of, for example, chin-butting, shin-butting, knee-butting or bottom-butting.
Butting is the action of putting the head on someone (also known as the Glasgow kiss).
5) “The ball’s in the back of the net”
A lifetime of searching – as player, spectator and journalist – has failed to yield the whereabouts of the front of the net.
If anything, the ball hitting the back of the net suggests that the scoring attempt was off-target and the ball has finished behind the net.
6) “Tell you what . . .”
Especially when chorused by a cluster of frantic BBC Radio Scotland reporters on a Saturday afternoon, this should be immediately recognised as a forewarning that what is about to be told will almost certainly not be worth the telling.