THERE is one respect in which Gordon Strachan’s hopes for Scotland’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign are going to be dashed. Strachan has said often that the focus should be on his players, a group he has utterly, and invigoratingly, transformed as demonstrated by the courageous 2-2 draw in Poland last Tuesday.
In the coming weeks, however, the encounter with the Republic of Ireland at Celtic Park on 14 November will be dominated by personalities. Specifically, Strachan’s and that of opposing manager Martin O’Neill.
The meeting of Celtic’s two most successful managers in three decades, at the Glasgow cauldron where they enjoyed many unforgettable moments, is undoubtedly the most delicious subplot from a Group D encounter that packs more than any Dostoevsky novel.
Strachan is sure to grow weary of discussing the head-to-head with the man he succeeded at Celtic in 2005, and fed up of ruminating on his first return to manage a home team at Celtic, in a competitive environment. As he decompressed in his La Manga bolthole last week, though, the fascinating subjects of his face-off with O’Neill and pitching up at his former footballing home still seemed to retain a novelty value. Certainly, the Scotland manager sees novel characteristics in the man who will be in the away dug-out for a qualifier neither side dare lose.
“He’s a happy eccentric and I enjoy his company,” Strachan said of O’Neill. “I spent a lot of time with him in Brazil as a fellow analyst for ITV’s World Cup coverage. We always ended up at the same table. There’s nothing complicated about his football talk. We use our eyes, rather than stats. Are we fatigued or not fatigued? We’re old-fashioned but there’s nothing wrong with that. Sir Alex Ferguson did the same things and it didn’t do him any harm. I’m not saying we are up there with him, I’m just saying being old-fashioned has served us OK.”
Celtic Park certainly served both men more than OK. There was something about the ambience of the packed-out stadium that allowed implausible European results, against more talented teams. The venue’s hosting of the Republic is certainly a factor in the confrontation having so captured the imagination, as Strachan has been made vividly aware.
He knows it is being likened to the evenings such as when Manchester United and AC Milan were vanquished to propel Celtic into the last 16 of the Champions League. “I’ve had English people on looking for tickets,” the Scotland manager said. “So neutrals want to be there, from all around the world. “They’re looking forward to the game and the occasion. It’s a big game. Because of the performances we’ve both put in, it’s one we’re looking forward to.”
The 57-year-old can’t determine right now whether he will rank 14 November 2014 up there with the most satisfying occasions that have followed him leading a team out of the Celtic Park tunnel. Chief among these were not the momentous successes over United or Milan, but the Spartak Moscow qualifier of 2007 that was settled on penalties to earn Celtic a place in the group stage the season after they had become the first Scottish team to reach the knockout stages.
“That game had everything. There’s a picture of Tommy Burns flying through the air into a huddle of boys celebrating. I’ll always remember that. I couldn’t tell you what Ireland will be like until it happens, like I couldn’t say what it was like to beat Rangers or Manchester United. Sometimes you just go ‘thank goodness that’s over’, or others you enjoy more. You never know until the game’s over. It’s probably the most eagerly awaited game either nation has had for a long, long time at international level.”
The villains of the night can already be identified, with Aiden McGeady – with whom Strachan enjoyed a difficult relationship at Celtic – and James McCarthy sure to take a pounding from the home supporters for electing to play for the country of their grandparents, and not Scotland, the country that they and their parents were born and raised in. Strachan admitted it would have been “terrific” to have the Everton pair in dark blue “but they’re not there so that’s it”.
“They’re two terrific players playing at a great club,” he said. “It’s two lads who have got the most out of their own ability. Aiden trained hard and was always in the gym so he’s getting what he deserves. McCarthy is the same. Those two have determined their future. Aiden did a great job for me at Celtic. He could always win games, he worked hard defensively and he got them [Ireland] three points in Georgia. McCarthy is a lad I’ve known for a long, long time. But, if they left spaces in our squad, I think we’ve filled them up nicely.”
While we may all have delighted in the football produced by Strachan’s side in their three Group D games, the fact is that Scotland’s rivals for the runners-up berth (Germany are sure to shake off their post-World Cup troubles), Poland and Ireland, have more to be pleased about than Scotland following the opening fixtures. Poland’s win at home to Germany and Ireland’s last-gasp draw away to the world champions, eclipsed Scotland’s valiant efforts in losing in Dortmund. Strachan accepted there was a degree of frustration in his team only sitting on four points.
“That’s what you have to deal with,” he said. “It could have been worse and, remember, Poland hit the post. That would have been really unlucky, to have only taken three points from three games. But, as I’ve said all along, you can only ask the players to train at a standard and be professional in everything that they do, then ask for the performance. Sometimes there’s nothing much you can do about the result. You can do a lot more about the performance.
“They can’t have any regrets about the performance, that’s for sure. No-one would have tipped the other results. You look at England’s group and it’s practically a walkover. I was speaking to people who were saying the group is no good to anyone – England, the other teams and definitely not the television companies, because it’s very hard to work up enthusiasm for something that’s already a foregone conclusion. Roy Hodgson might not agree with that but it’s the way everyone in football is thinking.” For all that the Ireland visit engages the senses, though, Scotland would rather have the prospect of a walkover at the home of Walk Ons.