Gordon Strachan has survived, and indeed prospered, in the job long enough to celebrate his second anniversary as Scotland manager earlier this month. But according to assistant Mark McGhee, even reaching a first anniversary was an unlikely prospect as they stared gloomily at each other over a dining room table just weeks into their reign.
Both McGhee and Strachan considered walking away during a bleak breakfast at Scotland’s Renfrewshire base on their return from a defeat to Serbia in March 2013. McGhee needed fortification and so chose a hearty cooked breakfast while the health conscious Strachan ordered his usual fare – “it was porridge and bananas for him, black pudding and haggis for me,” smiled McGhee – as they attempted to make sense of a competitive record that now read: played two, lost two. Maybe, they wondered, the task of resurrecting the fortunes of the national team was beyond them? They’d certainly been surprised at just how bad Scotland were against Wales on the previous Friday night.
Strachan has often described the first 30 minutes of the clash with Wales as being the worst a team of his has played. The 2-1 defeat that night was followed by a dispiriting 2-0 loss in Serbia. The management team were aware they had some leeway due to the perception it was the previous regime’s fault for having already wrecked the qualification campaign for the Brazil World Cup, but McGhee admits he and Strachan still felt the pain of those defeats keenly.
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“I remember when we came back from Serbia we were the only two left at Mar Hall,” he recalled yesterday. “We were sitting across from each other at breakfast staring at each other and wondering ‘what have we done?’ Maybe we even thought ‘should we keep doing it?’
“From that point we decided that we had to change something and we decided that we would do it his way and not what players might think or expect.
“We were fairly down at that moment,” he added. “We had come in thinking if we could win the two games – Wales and Serbia – we could be back in the hunt for qualification but we lost both so we were gutted.”
Not even McGhee was sure Strachan had what it takes to revive Scotland. Even though they had been friends since meeting at Aberdeen in the late 1970s, the honest McGhee could only hope Strachan was the right choice to replace Craig Levein. Asked whether he was confident his old mate could make the difference everyone wanted, he replied: “No”.
McGhee added: “What you have to remember is that what I knew about Gordon as a coach and manager was from the outside, I had never worked with him. I had seen him do brilliantly at Celtic and really well at other places. “He and I had agreed on everything in terms of his view of football. But I didn’t really know how he would do. I was hopeful he would do a good job but I did not know with any certainty that it would be how it is now.”
McGhee credits Strachan with restoring enthusiasm among the squad and for keeping the players interested. In his estimation the manager has introduced a more “sophisticated” style of play. “We have found a way of playing that is a bit more difficult for the opposition, the players enjoy it, and then comes the other stuff – atmosphere, spirit, results,” he said. “You know what he is like with his sense of humour. He winds the boys up. Some of them still don’t know whether he is joking or being serious.”
The upshot is that players all want to be involved with the international set-up. Clubs are contacting Strachan and McGhee trying to get him interested in their players. “I’m considering stopping taking them [the calls] because there are so many – clubs who phone and say: ‘you’ll be surprised if you see my lad up close’.
It’s a refreshing change to be given an insight into this new climate. While England manager Roy Hodgson – whose side have admittedly strolled through their Euro 2016 qualifying group so far – struggles to attract players to an intended team-bonding evening meal, Scotland are on such an upswing that club managers are pushing players towards Strachan and McGhee. All thanks to a pact struck over a bowl of porridge to carry on.
• Scotland are in talks with Qatar about a potential warm-up match ahead of June’s Euro qualifier against the Republic of Ireland.
After crashing out of the Asian Cup on Monday following a third Group C loss to Bahrain, Qatar coach Djamel Belmadi claimed the 2022 World Cup hosts had already arranged a friendly against Gordon Strachan’s side. Belmadi said: “We have a camp in the United Kingdom in June. We will play two friendlies in the UK, one against Scotland and another which is to be confirmed.”
Privately, the SFA say Qatar are among a number of countries that they are in disussions with regarding a non-competitive fixture.
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