The real, proper, serious work began for Gordon Strachan yesterday, but in the improbable surroundings of a car showroom he couldn’t resist one more joke.
Specifically, this was a small office just off the sparkling forecourt, a slightly unnerving place where people like you and me often have to come for help to make our dreams come true. “So you need some finance?” the Scotland manager said, peering over the borrowed desk. “Let me get a bit of background on you and we’ll see what we can do … ”
With respect, the names of the salesmen on the whiteboard behind him were of no interest to Strachan. He was preoccupied with his just-announced 26-man squad running from back-from-oblivion Craig Gordon to Steven Naismith, in zippy scoring form for his club. Not a new motor, but Strachan was still selling a dream: qualification for a major tournament for the first time since 1998. To be in France in two years’ time, Scotland will have to do what’s usually required of them in the Euros: achieve a famous result against the reigning world champions.
But if the wee man is daunted by the task – or the fact all his good results to date have come in lost-cause games and friendlies – then he isn’t showing it. Was the Dortmund showdown affecting his sleep? “No, I’ve got plenty things to keep me awake.” Did he worry that, if the match on 7 September went especially badly, Scotland could end up conceding seven like Brazil? “No.”
Strachan was in ebullient form as he evoked the spirit of Glasgow 2014 – the Commonwealth Games – and Mexico 1986. What did he remember of his goal against West Germany at that World Cup? “I think it was Roy Aitken who gave me the pass and that surprised me.”
And what of his celebration, when he looked to be trying to vault a wall to somewhere interesting, possibly glamorous, only to remember he was wearing ridiculous beach-shorts?
“There was a bit of a trend for jumping over hoardings at that World Cup. I stopped because I wasn’t sure what was over the other side. But the best moment about that goal was running back to the halfway line. That was when I realised: my dad’s in the golf club in Edinburgh, jumping about with his mates.”
Strachan didn’t dwell on his achievements. It’s not about him anymore, and he has every confidence in his players for the daunting task ahead. “I’ve not got a problem with the character of these guys.”
Character. The manager used the word many times. It was as important to a footballer as skill. Scottish Commonwealth Games stars like boxer Charlie Flynn demonstrated it. And so in their own way already had his uncapped players, Callum McGregor and Kevin McDonald.
“We closet kids nowadays. They play under-21 games at their training grounds. The coach isn’t allowed to raise his voice to them. When they get beat nobody says boo. In life you’ve got to be tested, really tested, and if that doesn’t happen when you’re young you’ll never be able to handle what comes later.”
McGregor, he said, had been proactive about his career last season by going on loan in England. “He could have walked about Glasgow saying: ‘I’m a Celtic player.’ But no he said: ‘I’m going to Notts County to learn the game.’ He was playing with guys who had to win to get a bonus to make a difference to their lives. That wee boxer guy [Flynn] – he’s reality. He’d been beaten a couple of times but when it came to the crunch his character showed through.”
Character-building, for sure. And McDonald, now at Wolves, had shown character to come back from “one or two ups and downs”. Strachan liked how he was always seeking to pass the ball forward, not sideways.
Character was all over the squad, from Alan Hutton, back in the Aston Villa team after much roaming to Darren Fletcher, newly installed as vice-captain at Manchester United.
“But I’m not going to put pressure on anyone by saying they’ll be our key player. I hope this is going to be a good group with a team way about us.”
How many characterful Scottish footballers could you fit in the kind of family saloon for sale at Gordon Strachan’s garage? As many as possible will be needed but Scotland seem to be travelling in the right direction.