IT could be said that not one but two games will be played out on the Wembley turf come Wednesday night.
England appear to be preparing for one of those typical early-season friendlies that tend to come and go without leaving much impression. Their manager, Roy Hodgson, has said players such as Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere will only be given 45 minute run-outs, mindful of more important fitness and club concerns surrounding the players. Meanwhile, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan is taking an altogether different tack.
For him the confrontation is as near-as-damned-it a full-on fixture that it allows for no concessions to external matters. That is precisely why he had a short, and to the point, answer when asked recently by domestic managers if he could tell them how long he intended to leave their players on the field. That answer amounted to “no”.
Strachan says: “If you promise somebody that you’ll take them off after 45 minutes, the centre half they’re playing with might get injured and it changes the perspective. So you can’t say, ‘I’ll give him 45 minutes and I’ll give him 60 minutes’. You play the game of football. It’s the same with footballers. They want to play. When the game starts – big games, any games, even friendlies – players just want to play football. And it’s very hard to say: ‘We’re going to take you off after 52-and-a-half minutes because we feel that’s going to help you’.
“At this time of the season, probably the best thing to help players is football but when the game starts I can’t think ‘We’re 1-0 up and I’m going to take him off after 55 minutes’. I don’t want to do that. We’re leading. I want to win. The player wants to win. The fans want us to win – they’re paying £65 or whatever for a ticket. They want to see players playing and they want to see them playing in a competitive style. They want me to take it as a competitive game. So I don’t see it as a friendly. I see it as a competitive game that we want to win, so I can’t promise any manager that I’ll take his player off after 45 minutes.
“We talk about playing loads of games – Ramires played 75 games for Chelsea and Brazil last year. We have this fixation that, if you play more than 30 games of football in Britain, you must be tired. ‘He’s fatigued’ – that’s the new thing in football language. Well, I’d like to think that, in April, he’s getting a bit fatigued, because that means you’ve been playing football and you’ve been playing with a good side that wins things.
“If you don’t want to be ‘fatigued’, play with a really bad team that only plays once a week.”
The contrasting mindsets of the two managers are reflective of the psyches of their followers. The equilibrium that once existed in an historically heavyweight football rivalry has been shattered by Scotland becoming international no-marks through enduring an exile of 15 years (and counting) from major finals. As a result, they have been largely starved of occasions such as will unfold in midweek, while England, a nation that considers quarter-final finishes at tournaments as failure, are no longer sustained by them.
It will always mean more to the little guy to give the bigger one a bloody nose in these circumstances ... even when it is only pride on the line in an encounter staged as part of the English FA’s 150th anniversary celebrations.
Yet, for all that, a certain balance may be restored once battle commences. If Scotland really do take up the cudgels, England may be forced to follow suit.
“When players arrive at the stadium and the fans are in there it’s got nothing to do with resting players or this, that or the next thing,” Strachan adds.
“It won’t be about the players who aren’t there, it’ll be about the players who are playing. Once you get to the game, no matter what’s happened before it, the game will look after itself, trust me. But there’s a lot going on in English football at the moment with players and transfers. Roy’s got to look after his players in the way he thinks best. He’s got to take into consideration whether they are physically fit, have they had enough games in pre-season.
“But I don’t like this friendly thing where you change ten players at half time or six come off after X minutes. As soon as that happens the game seems to die for everybody. What Roy does with his squad is entirely up to him. He’s got a plan to adhere to. I’ve got a plan as well to give players as much time at the top level as I can because, as you saw this week, top European football is leaving us. We’ve lost St Johnstone – very unfortunately – Motherwell and Hibs and it’s only the first week in August. So my players don’t get a lot of practice of playing top football in terms of playing European or international football, so those that get picked will enjoy this.”
The nation north of the border hopes that will be the case, anyway.
Strachan, who reignited Scottish passion for international football by masterminding the brilliant, if too late, World Cup qualifying win in Croatia in June, wants his team to be more attack-minded than they were in Zagreb, recycle possession better than they did then and impose themselves by treating Wembley as a neutral venue rather than an away ground.
The only difficulty with making good on these laudable aims is the fact that his team will find themselves up against vastly superior players at the home of English football.
Yet, as Strachan reminded us with the miracle of Croatia, when at his best as a coach, this is where he can excel. It was a largely ordinary Celtic side he dragged into the Champions League last 16 two years running, and he did so by setting players the tasks that allowed them to scalp such as reigning European champions AC Milan, Manchester United, Benfica and a talented, and expensively assembled, Spartak Moscow.
“I was never scared of it,” he says of facing patently more accomplished teams.
“You do your planning, and the closer you get to the game and the longer you work with your players you think ‘yeah, we can do something here’.
“It’ll be similar when I meet the boys on Sunday. I’ll look at it and go ‘yeah, we’ve got good players here as well’. Then on the night, you think ‘yeah, we can win this’. And, when it starts, you wonder what you were worrying about.”