GORDON Strachan’s side may have been the toast of Scotland’s football fraternity following their victory over the Republic of Ireland, but there was no clinking of glasses when the squad returned to their Mar Hall base late Friday evening.
The cultural shift that Strachan has effected across his near two years in charge isn’t restricted to a demand for a certain fizz on the field, even if it must be acknowledged that the win over Martin O’Neill’s men flowed from football more of the strong ale than champagne variety. What is understood implicitly by all those serving their country now is that complete sobriety is a standard measure.
“They don’t even attempt that,” Strachan says of the traditional “few scoops” wind down. “They are in a routine now and it is just no. I remember when I was a player, the captain would always say to the manager ‘Any chance of a couple of beers?’ It doesn’t happen now. We are way above that now. They have their food. We created it [the climate of abstinence]. The whole staff aren’t allowed alcohol in the hotel. No one has seen us with alcohol in two years. This is what top teams do. I also think if you look back in history, any argument, it [alcohol] is always involved. So you keep away from that.”
Scotland know all about argy-bargy ensuing from boozy post-match sessions. The infamous events at Cameron House in Loch Lomond five and a half years ago remain all-too-fresh in the memory. The fall-out that followed the players’ late night return from a 3-0 World Cup qualifying loss in Amsterdam turned drunken antics into a national scandal and captain Barry Ferguson and then fellow Rangers team-mate Allan McGregor into international pariahs. For a spell. That followed the SFA initially stating the pair would not be considered for selection as a result of compounding their reveries by giving the v-signs to photographers when dropped to the bench for the home tie with Iceland days later.
The depths to which Scotland sank on and off the park under George Burley seem so much more distant than March 2009. Yet, what might be said in support of him – and could not be offered of his successor Craig Levein – was that he at least attempted to find roles for players of craft and invention such as Shaun Maloney, and a style that would provide a framework for them to produce progressive football. It has simply taken until Strachan’s elevation for Scotland to be helmed by someone with the presence, personality and nous to turn such a blueprint into reality.
The quality of Maloney’s Ireland winner – effectively his third direct goal-producing contribution in as many Euro 2016 qualifiers – demonstrated how, under Strachan, best practice seems to come together at key moments in games. The impressiveness of Scotland’s display the other night has been overplayed, with Ireland desperately rudimentary and rough around the edges. However, any praise of Maloney’s decisive strike cannot be over the top. That is true even when there was a little luck involved. Strachan seems to carry the required quota of that, happily.
“It was Stuart’s [McCall] idea, that corner kick, it was a variation,” the Scotland manager explained. “It wasn’t meant to be as many touches as that but it actually ended up looking fantastic. Shaun’s nutmeg and Broonie’s [Scott Brown’s] backheeler – they weren’t meant to be in the plan. Broonie wasn’t in exactly the spot he was meant to be.”
Scotland are in a priceless spot it was impossible to envisage them being in 14 months ago. Then, they had lost four of their previous five games. Now, they have endured only one defeat in ten, at the home of world champions Germany, and have recorded six clean sheets across that sequence – four on the spin at home. In that time, Andrew Robertson has emerged as surely Scotland’s left-back for the next decade, the 20-year-old prevailing against exalted Everton pairing Aiden McGeady and Seamus Coleman down his flank on Friday night. Meanwhile, such as Alan Hutton, Robert Snodgrass and James Morrison – three absolute mainstays of recent times – could be rendered unavailable by injury and illness and the team not seem diminished as a result.
Scotland are in a groove that, frankly, makes Tuesday’s encounter with England something of a nuisance. Better that the feelgood from the Ireland win was carried through the winter and on to – surely – a gubbing of Gibraltar at home in March, ahead of the Dublin date in June. Instead, it could be slightly diluted if goals go in at the home end, and the game does not pan out as demanded by the Scotland faithful at Celtic Park.
Strachan is facing a quandary. He has buy-in from all his players – “they’ve done great, absolutely fantastic” – but is keen to retain that from those on the fringes by providing a return on Tuesday. And yet. “We might try something different in terms of our shape, but listen, we’ve got to go on and win it, that’s what we’ve got to try and do,” he said. “Everyone in the squad would like to have a game but I want to win it. That is the priority. I’d love to give everyone a touch of it; especially the guys who have been here the whole ten days. Give them a touch of the ball, I’d like to do that because it is very hard to come away for ten days, non-stop, and not get a feel of the ball. We will try and do that.
“I think there are lads saying ‘right, I’m a good player, but he’s playing well, he’s playing well, that one’s playing well’. They are clever enough to understand that. Barry Bannan’s probably the best at training this week. I mean unbelievable. But then you have to say, where do you fit Barry in? Maloney? He’s on fire. [Steven] Naismith? He’s on fire. Kech [Ikechi Anya] can run it. Do you play him in central midfield? Broonie’s fantastic, [James] Morrison’s there. So it’s hard. It’s hard. But I’ve got to say watching Barry Bannan in training this week has been phenomenal.” Strachan’s Scotland are becoming something of a phenomenon themselves.
29 Mar: Gibraltar (H)
13 June: Rep of Ireland (A)
4 Sept: Georgia (A)
7 Sept: Germany (H)
8 Oct: Poland (H)
11 Oct: Gibraltar (A)