IT IS to Gordon Strachan’s great credit that the task of contemplating Scotland’s prospects following another failed campaign does not induce an overwhelming sense of dread.
A record of just three wins from ten qualifying matches would have been dismissed as the nightmare scenario had it been proposed last September. However, the knowledge that these three wins were collected in the last four outings means there is a sense of momentum surrounding the international team that has not been felt since Alex McLeish, Strachan’s old Aberdeen team-mate, was manager.
Although there have been bleak moments during his own, short reign, Strachan could not be expected to have achieved more than he has to date – two victories over the top seeds in the group as well as promising signs that a system which suits the players as well as pleases the supporters is currently in development, something further evidenced by Tuesday night’s 2-0 victory over Croatia.
The main frustration now is that the next competitive match is nearly a year away, with the qualifiers for the 24-team Euro 2016 finals beginning next September. While friendlies against the United States and probably Norway in a few weeks’ time are a more appealing proposition than they might otherwise have been, the natural urge is to want to embark on the serious business again as soon as is possible.
Strachan is tasked with maintaining the improvement over what is an unhelpful lull in the proceedings. In order to do that Scotland must first find a way of coping with their old Achilles heel of a friendly match at an under-capacity Hampden Park next month.
“We can all go away and feel good about ourselves for a month and then come back and do it all again,” said Strachan, looking ahead to the United States fixture. The manager was doing his best to redirect the focus on to the players as the urge to anoint him saviour built all around him. These players have impelled him to pick them, he insisted: “They’ve done that themselves. Honestly – it’s not me. Trust me, it’s not.”
It is understandable that Strachan wants to seek to play down his own part in the dramatic improvement out of respect to his predecessor Craig Levein, whose reign, sadly, is not being made to look better with the benefit of hindsight, as is sometimes the case. Even Berti Vogts has been granted some relief in the years that have passed since his tenure. Everything is still probably a little too sensitive to allow Levein some absolution just yet, although he can plead for some mitigating factors to be taken into account. Strachan himself even flagged one up on Tuesday evening. “I look at the first couple of games, and I look at Wales in particular, and we were 1-0 up and a decision cost Scotland the game,” he said, with reference to Steven Fletcher’s disallowed goal in Cardiff. “It could have been all different.”
Still, the damage had already been done. Only Scotland could agitate for two home games to start off with and then end up dropping four crucial points in them, effectively ending the campaign when it had barely begun. And perhaps only Scotland could then take more points off the tops seeds than the other four teams combined.
It was Strachan who unearthed the find of the campaign in a diminutive Watford winger, one whose early years were spent in Castlemilk but who had barely set foot back in the country until reporting for international duty. Ikechi Anya has proved a revelation. It was Strachan who brought in double training sessions and worked and worked on an overlap routine from which Scotland scored their opening goal on Tuesday. “Maybe we should listen to him more often,” smiled James Morrison afterwards.
Steven Naismith’s emergence as a focal point for the attack, meanwhile, is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the campaign. It meant the transition period following Kenny Miller’s retirement was more smoothly negotiated than first feared.
The burning question on the lips of the Tartan Army since Tuesday is what if Strachan had been in place at the start of the campaign? The unmistakable progress of the last few months was simply never discernible under Levein. Indeed, Strachan now has as many competitive victories in six matches as Levein managed in twice as many outings – and rather than Lithuania and Liechtenstein, the current manager’s scalps include a side ranked No 4 in the world as recently as the summer.
Unsurprisingly, Strachan batted away the question of what might have happened had he been recruited earlier. “You never know,” he said. “I cannae tell. I really can’t tell you that. It would be unfair, to me, to comment on that.” What is clear is that Strachan has managed to imbue players who were struggling with a new sense of purpose. “It’s no’ easy – you just don’t turn up and say ‘Listen, we’ll have a rest, we’ll have a cup of tea, we’ll go out and do a bit of training’,” he explained,
“I’m not saying that happened before. Trust me, I’m not saying that. I’m saying that I’m never confident unless I know I’ve worked with the team before going out onto the pitch. As I’ve said before, we’re not a Manchester United. Manchester United just say ‘There’s 11 players, let’s play’. We’re a bit different from that. We do not have world-class players. We have a group of players that as a group can win games, that’s for sure.”
Strachan noted the restorative properties of a victory. As well as making the nation “happy”, as he noted following Tuesday’s victory, it gives the players a boost. Too often Scotland players have returned to their clubs with the jeers ringing in their ears, as the cycle of poor results continued to grind them down. “You enjoy this, and I hope they go back now and go, ‘I liked that, we got a bit of praise’,” said Strachan. “Sometimes you come back from an international game and you are down. Sometimes the manager who is receiving them back has to pick them up. You have to work at them. But now I think they’re going back and actually adding to their club.”
It’s important not to get too carried away, of course. If there has been one blot on Strachan’s report card so far it is in his treatment of Jordan Rhodes, whose willingness to turn up for Scotland duty some fear has been weakened by the manager’s unnecessarily public remarks about him improving his work-rate and movement.
There have been times under Strachan as he fought to impose his system on the players when Scotland have looked as poor as ever, perhaps poorer. However, on a humid night in Zagreb, it really felt as though things had begun to click, and again on Tuesday, Scotland looked supremely comfortable against the same opponents. Not for a long time has there been such desire inside a Scottish dressing-room to engage with the challenges ahead, and this mood is complemented by a refreshing, new-found optimism in the stands.