Manager insists there is an ‘excitement’ in the camp and tells his team to relish the fact they’ve played themselves into a big game
With a wry aside where he attempted to provide some context for such an eagerly awaited game, Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill reminded those in attendance at his press conference yesterday that he once, many years ago, featured in a World Cup quarter-final.
While it isn’t strictly true – O’Neill’s Northern Ireland in fact reached the second phase where they were beaten by France during Espana ’82 – the point he was trying to make was in danger of being lost in any case.
Tonight’s mid-summer’s game between Republic of Ireland and Scotland has caught the imagination. Despite the unusual 5pm kick-off it has long been identified as high noon for both these countries. Experienced Italian official Nicola Rizzoli could be in for a testing evening as the sun dips behind Dublin’s Aviva stadium.
The appointment of a referee who officiated at the World Cup final a year ago next month simply strengthens the impression that this is a special, possibly fiery occasion. Nonetheless, Gordon Strachan’s final message to his Scotland players as they make their way from the away dressing-room out into the cacophony this evening will be to relax.
This is a bonus game bursting with possibilities at the end of a long season. It’s one they should enjoy. Although Strachan is asking for one last effort before the players depart, finally, for an extended summer break, he is conscious of the need to ease the pressure on them.
“I said to the players ‘if we only had a couple of points I wouldn’t have expected to see a lot of you lot’.”Gordon Strachan
Rather than a ‘cup final’, tonight’s meeting is simply the latest step on a qualifying quest they have dealt with commendably to date. It is a vital fixture of course, but only because they have overcome tests just as stern since September.
Had they not performed so well in earlier group encounters, Strachan ventured, then this latest assignment had the potential to be a truly unappetising one. However, with Scotland bidding to all but eliminate the Irish from the qualifying equation, the opposite is true. Everyone wants to be involved. They are the ones in clover.
“This could have been a horrible fixture,” mused Strachan yesterday. “As a matter of fact, I said to them: ‘if we only had a couple of points I wouldn’t have expected to see a lot of you lot’. But the fact is you have put yourself in this position where this is an important game, you have put yourself in a great position. They have made it interesting.
“It has made it easier because of the points we’ve got and how we’ve played. At no time do I have to gee them up at all. Sometimes they have to relax a wee bit. This isn’t a trial match out here.”
The players aren’t here to impress anyone. They are here because they deserve to be here. They will be handed a Scottish jersey tonight on merit. That wasn’t necessarily the case when Scotland were last in action at this time of year. The clash with Croatia in 2013 is now regarded as a watershed moment in Strachan’s tenure.
Few expected anything from a disparate group of players assembled from those left after multiple call-offs. They were after all up against a team ranked No 4 in the world at the time. It was the start of June.
Scotland’s World Cup qualifying hopes had already long evaporated. But somehow, from this unpromising set of circumstances, Scotland secured an unlikely victory, earned courtesy of Robert Snodgrass’ first-half winner. The Strachan era was up and running. They’ve barely looked back since that night in Zagreb.
“It looked like it was hard work for everybody then,” recalled Strachan. “This is not hard work. There is an excitement about it and an energy that has made the whole thing flow.
“We had to drag whatever we had out of each other for that game [against Croatia],” he added.
Leigh Griffiths started up front but hasn’t started a match since. Strachan unwittingly stumbled upon a first-choice defensive pairing in Russell Martin and Grant Hanley, who played together at the back for the first time, and equipped themselves well. Hanley is injured for this evening’s encounter, meaning Charlie Mulgrew could step in at centre-half. Who, then, will deputise for him in midfield – Darren Fletcher, James McArthur or James Morrison?
It is almost – almost – an embarrassment of riches. Fears the players might have lost some of their edge during their recent competitive interlude have proved unfounded. Indeed, Strachan has had to intervene on occasion in training over the last fortnight to tell the players to calm down. “Nothing rough or anything like that, it is just the intensity they play at,” he said.
But then this is one of Strachan’s great triumphs – the players all want to play for him. But he has one other message. Do not play for him, play for each other. Play for the glory of winning, no matter who is included among the opposition, no matter what mini-wars are involved.
He dismissed the notion that the derby-ish elements of this fixture means there is even more at stake. He flatly rejected the notion that because Aiden McGeady is Scottish-born and was on the receiving end of abuse at the first fixture in November at Celtic Park he will be even more motivated to taste success against the visitors, providing he overcomes a hamstring problem.
Similarly, neither is it Gordon Strachan v Martin O’Neill. Or Gordon Strachan v Roy Keane, who wrote in a recent autobiography that although Strachan signed him for Celtic, he sensed he wasn’t really wanted at the club. Strachan’s own relationship with O’Neill has been a source of intrigue since he succeeded the Northern Irishman at Celtic in 2005.
Strachan considered sending his opposite man a text this week upon hearing he and Keane, O’Neill’s assistant, had been involved in a minor car accident in Dublin. “My secret agent Jock McTavish missed them!” smiled Strachan.
He decided against making contact in the end. But such pantomime rivalry will not make victory tonight any sweeter. Strachan claims never to have tried that little bit harder in matches where some might have imagined a grudge existed.
“Absolutely never,” he said. “I never had that. Because if I had that extra motivation, then what was I doing the day before? I used to think every game was the most important one. I can’t remember ever finishing a game of football and saying ‘oh good, I beat that club, or that manager’. I was too busy enjoying myself in the victory or the performance to worry about that. There’s more to life than worrying about who you are playing against. I think that’s quite narrow-minded to be happy to be beat a manager. If I was just happy to beat Alex Ferguson then there would be something wrong with me.
“It is not to my advantage,” he added. “I play for my team and my team-mates. I celebrate with my team and my teammates. I didn’t at any time think, ‘oh we got beat 3-1, but at least I scored a goal against them’. There would be something seriously wrong with you if you thought that way.
“Football is a team game. Your team beating the other team is more than enough reward. When we got that fantastic result against the Republic [in November], my first thought wasn’t ‘oh I know Roy Keane, I beat Roy Keane’, or Martin, or any of the former players I managed in the Republic of Ireland team’.”
Victory, then, is desired for its own sake. And no-one in the Scotland camp needs to be reminded about the potential prize come next summer.