IT’S safe to assume that when Gordon Strachan emerged from the Pittodrie tunnel as an eager 20-year-old, he didn’t expect to do so again as manager of Scotland, a quarter of a century later.
He said so himself in tonight’s match programme, at the beginning of his welcome notes. You would wager that there have been few more tactile entrances made by a new incumbent of the post. Did Jock Stein bear-hug anyone? Ally MacLeod? Strachan’s walk along the touchline was interrupted when he spotted an old Aberdeen team-mate in Stuart Kennedy in the main stand.
There’s never not time to hug a fellow Gothenburg Great, and so Strachan did, wrapping his arms around the popular full-back, who sat on the bench that famous night. Strachan’s most recent visits here were as manager of Celtic, and on one occasion he even had a row with some home fans and a Pittodrie steward. However, if there were any faint concerns surrounding Strachan’s return, then they were swept away in the instant of this sweet moment. An opening win didn’t harm the new manager’s approval rating either, on a night when the only whistling that was heard came from a bitterly cold wind. For chroniclers of Scotland outings in the last few months under Craig Levein, this was a welcome change.
It was Strachan’s assistant, Mark McGhee, who admitted he had most to worry about after an undistinguished spell as manager at Pittodrie. He, too, need not have fretted; this was a new start for everyone, including Chris Burke, who Strachan employed wide on the right and who caught the eye in the opening stages with some dashing wing play, nearly seven years after his last cap. The recalling of the Birmingham City player could be an early masterstroke in this nascent Strachan reign, as might be Charlie Mulgrew’s deployment at left-back.
There will forever be argument about this player’s best position, whether it is in the middle of a back four or on the left side of one. What seems certain is that Scotland can ill do without his sweet ball-striking and goal threat from set-pieces. Even on a muddy, heavy pitch, this talent was plain to see as he swept in Scotland’s winner just before half-time.
Strachan was coy about the formation in a pre-match discussion on the radio, describing it as a “variation” of 4-4-2. Strachan is too canny to need his own personal PR advisor, but if he did he would have had it drummed into him to avoid ever mentioning he was playing with one striker, even if he was. Such is the stigma attached to Levein’s difficult tenure.
On the eve of this fixture, Strachan advised reporters against reading too much into a stated formation, since it can change and adapt to certain situations. For example, when Scotland had the ball it seemed to be 4-4-2, or perhaps even 4-3-3. When without the ball, which they were for some alarmingly long spells in the first half, Scotland got back in numbers, leaving just Steven Fletcher in an orthodox forward position. In the second half, when Jordan Rhodes came on, Fletcher was the one who dropped a little deeper.
The manager had clearly not let his new charges be idle on the training pitch this week; Scotland’s opening goal after 39 minutes had all the hallmarks of a move devised on the training ground, or inside a hall in the Aberdeen Sports Village, where Scotland trained on Tuesday due to the weather.
Charlie Adam side-footed a free kick into the path of Mulgrew, who exhibited his talent for striking a ball first-time by drilling a low shot into the corner of the net. It seemed appropriate that someone with Aberdeen connections should be the one to get this new era under way. Mulgrew is another who has not endeared himself to Aberdeen fans since he left the club, but he was cheered heartily enough during the match. Strachan, meanwhile, reacted with notable restraint, simply turning to give McGhee a handshake rather than attempt to swing his leg over a nearby advertising hoarding. Well, he has had a couple of hip replacements, to be fair to him.
Often in friendlies like this, the first-half offers the most enlightening insight into a performance, since the multitude of substitutions permitted in the second-half serves only to break-up the flow of a game. On the evidence of the first 45 minutes, Strachan’s tenure looks to have promise, and though he has placed his faith in many of the players who came up short in the previous era, both Burke and Mulgrew, who could never be considered a mainstay under Levein, made impressive appeals to be considered in the starting XI for the visit of Wales next month.
Scott Brown, too, looked to be suited to the role of Scotland skipper. Even when he was finally withdrawn after an hour, with Neil Lennon no doubt getting ever more het up while watching at home, the Celtic midfielder seemed unwilling to leave the pitch. He received generous applause as he departed, leaving Scotland to defend the 1-0 lead without him, or, preferably, to extend it. Mulgrew almost did, stinging the fingertips of goalkeeper Sergei Pareiko with a long-distance effort. But the one goal proved enough.
There were no hugs at the final-whistle, however. Instead, there was just another handshake between Strachan and McGhee. The body language was as revealing as the performance. Let’s not get carried away, it said. But it’s a start.