It is a rite of passage for any Scotland manager. Nevertheless, Gordon Strachan’s first taste of a hard luck story since taking over the international reins had clearly taken a toll on him on Wednesday evening, after Scotland contrived to lose to their oldest rivals after twice taking the lead.
From Scotland’s point of view some comfort can be sourced in the number of people in England calling for the match to be reintroduced to the fixture calendar. Previously, the majority of those south of the Border had seemed rather less convinced by the merits of bringing it back.
Observers yesterday gushed about the level of entertainment on offer, seemingly surprised at Scotland’s ability to string a succession of passes together and equally startled by the level of entertainment that was served up as England won an enthralling match 3-2.
However, Strachan seemed pleasingly immune to the belief that it had been enough for Scotland to simply be competitive. That Scotland, by not falling to as heavy defeat as the Under 21s, had managed to secure some sort of moral victory. Strachan wanted to win, desperately. Even though losing by the odd in five would seem to indicate some degree of misfortune, the manager viewed it as carelessness on Scotland’s part. However, he conceded there were reasons for the raggedness in defence that led to the concession of two goals from set pieces.
After seeming to have been eliminated against Croatia, Scotland’s frailties in defence recurred at Wembley. Some could be attributed to the various comings and goings as both managers began to make use of their alternative choices on the substitute benches.
As Strachan pointed out, Scotland struggled to adjust to the changes England were making in the second-half. “They were turning round and going: ‘who’s he? Oh that’s right, I have seen him on telly’”, was how the manager rather unflatteringly described the thought process in his defenders’ heads. Of course, at international level, these players should still be able to cope with the need to quickly reorganise themselves at set-pieces, even with changes in personnel among the opposition. The barrel-chested Rickie Lambert is hardly able to ghost in unnoticed at the back post, or indeed anywhere else in the box.
The photographs of Lambert’s winning goal in English newspapers yesterday confirmed that Scotland had more than enough bodies around the ball – there were as many as seven dark blue shirts in one back-page shot. However, Lambert, displaying the desire that saw him reach the Premier League and break into the English side at such a comparatively late age compared to others, was the one who wanted to win the ball most desperately.
Strachan is considering introducing zonal marking, a tactic he employed when in charge at Celtic and Southampton. “It’s a lot easier where you actually know your position, because when they are chopping and changing like that it can become a problem,” he said. This not always popular tactic might unsettle some members of the Tartan Army but it may also bring a certain rigour to the rearguard.
Strachan is well aware of Scotland’s lack of options at centre-half, a matter that will have caused him some concern. Having made a statement by fielding Russell Martin and Grant Hanley together for a second successive match, it seems sensible to persist with the duo, who are still adapting to the demands of international football.
Remarkably, perhaps the greatest revelation from the night was the performance of someone who won his first cap for Scotland as long ago as 2001. With Lambert dominating the headlines in England yesterday, it is interesting to note that Kenny Miller, who scored Scotland’s second goal with a wonderful shimmy and shot, is only two years older than the Southampton striker. Perhaps there is still life in his 33 year-old legs yet.
Indeed, Strachan’s comments about the player yesterday could be interpreted as a plea for Miller to postpone any thoughts of international retirement for the time being.
The Scotland manager believes the striker is becoming better as he gets older. Strachan stressed that there is more to come from Miller. “People keep telling me to put youngsters in, but they need to be better than what we’ve got,” he said. “If they are not very good, they are not very good.” Strachan referred to Frank Lampard as further proof that if you are good enough, you are young enough. But it isn’t only about ability. There must also be a determination to become as good as you can be.
“Too many young players these days think they have the talent that will take them through to the end of their career,” said Strachan. “He [Miller] has shown incredible professionalism, decent pace, brave in the air, willing to take a knock. The number of times he gets clattered on the head or knocked down. I think that determines how well you are playing.”
This was something he used to impress upon his more diminutive players at Celtic. He knew those such as Aiden McGeady and Shaun Maloney were doing something right by the number of times they were left on the floor. “If you’re getting kicked you’re doing the right things,” Strachan would tell them. As well as giving defenders Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka a hard time, Miller was taking some punishment from them on Wednesday during his 73 minutes on the park.
The critics have been silenced for the time being, not that Strachan paid any attention to them. Asked about the disdain with which Miller’s inclusion was greeted in some quarters, he shrugged. “I don’t think we’ve heard any real person of standing saying anything about Kenny, that’s the difference. A lot of managers have signed him – I’m one of them. He’s a better professional and he’s become a more relaxed person as he’s gotten older.”
Although he brightened while discussing such positive aspects as Miller, there was still no getting away from it – Strachan had still not recovered from the pain of losing something he described as “more than a friendly”. Despite the pre-match talk of wishing to douse the type of passion that leads to injudicious decision-making, he had clearly invested a lot of emotion in the occasion. He looked drained afterwards and left it much later than normal to appear for his post-match press conference.
Asked if he would like the chance for revenge at Hampden anytime soon, the manager replied: “Yeah…Saturday.” Although this wish won’t be granted, there is a growing chance that a re-match could be staged in Glasgow sometime in 2015. Bucking the trend for the life expectancy of Scotland managers in recent times, everything points to Strachan – and perhaps even Miller – still being around then.
• Tickets for Scotland v Belgium at Hampden Park on Friday, 6 September, are on sale now. Visit www.scottishfa.co.uk