When he was a player appearing for Scotland against England, as he did on four occasions, Gordon Strachan remembers being concerned only with making those watching the game in his father’s local golf club at Silverknowes happy.
Now he acknowledges that he is charged with causing delight to spread throughout an entire nation as he contemplates the return of this particular fixture at Wembley this evening. The thought does leave him slightly on edge. In terms of Scotland managers in this millennium, Strachan is preparing to enter uncharted territory by leading Scotland into a game against the Auld Enemy.
“The nervousness as a manager comes during the build-up to the game,” he said yesterday at the Scotland team base in Hertfordshire. “Once you get on the bus it’s like ‘right, this is good, I’m ready for this now’.”
Many Scotland fans have been ready for a rematch since the final whistle sounded at Wembley in 1999. It confirmed that while Scotland had won the battle they had lost the war, going down 2-1 on aggregate to England in a Euro 2000 play-off defeat that was sweetened only very slightly by the second-leg victory.
It is, he agreed, more than simply another friendly international. “That’s the problem,” he said. “People say it’s a friendly – but it’s not a friendly to me. I am looking forward to the excitement of it, the enjoyment of it. But there is also a nervousness that says ‘I don’t want to get beat.’
The tension is palpable. “It’s there when you’re going to bed the night before, then when you wake up in the morning,” Strachan said. “It goes away a bit when you get on to the training field and then the bus when you think ‘yeah, we can win this game’.
“No matter who I’ve worked with I always get to the day of the game and think ‘we can win this’. When you get to the ground you want to do something so there won’t be the nervousness there. Instead it’s excitement, thinking ‘bring it on now’.”
It was different to when he was a player, when his thoughts were restricted to a golf club in Edinburgh and his responsibilities lay only in ensuring he contributed as well as he could to the team. “You think of your family and how proud they are of you,” he said. “I thought about my dad back at the golf club with his mates getting drunk before watching the game. I could just imagine what they’d be like if a goal went in.”
Against Croatia in June, Strachan wanted to see how the players, some of whom were relative newcomers to the squad, operated under such intense pressure. Such demanding occasions as playing the fourth-ranked team in the world are an opportunity to learn about members of the squad and they did not let him down, hence the fact that all 11 starters that night have been included in the squad for tonight’s clash.
“It made my summer a lot better, that’s for sure,” he said, when asked about the benefits of that result. “Not just the result, but some of the things we did as well.
“We had a week to work at it, which was different from Wales and Serbia. The disappointment of the Wales game [which Scotland lost 2-1] actually overwhelmed me. I couldn’t concentrate on the Serbia game until we actually got to Serbia. I couldn’t put them in two boxes because the disappointment was so great.”
The decision to abandon a planned training session at Wembley last night should not be taken as trepidation, and neither should it be seen as a sign of over-confidence.
Rather, it appears to confirm that preparations have developed along the lines that Strachan had hoped. The players were kept at their barracks yesterday, not that the manager would be happy with such terminology being employed.
Scotland are not going to war, he stressed yesterday. Nor are they on a jolly.
Strachan had discerned no sign of giddiness prior to such as a high-profile match at a renowned arena. He is confident that they won’t be turning up at Wembley “like holiday-makers, getting their picture taken”. Players these days are used to playing at such well- appointed grounds. “I think they are professional enough – they have seen everything about the place,” he said.
“The stadiums are so good these days,” he continued. “I remember the days when Wembley was the out-and-out place you had to go. I think there are so many good stadiums going about. But Wembley still has a special place, there’s absolutely no doubt about that.
“Sometimes you go to the stadium just for a feel of the surface. It can be different – like different putting greens. If there is anything better than the Watford training ground that we have been training on I would be very surprised.”
Strachan appreciates that south of the border the countdown to the match has been set in the context of a certain Wayne Rooney rather than the return of the world’s oldest international fixture.
“He’s terrific, absolutely terrific,” he said. “He has a hunger, he has work-rate and he has ability. He has a devil inside him to win games. He’s a terrific footballer.
“The thing about Wayne Rooney right now, though, is that everybody is talking about him and he’d probably appreciate it if I didn’t say anything about him. I might become his best mate if I don’t say anything.”
He will, however, mention him to his players, but then he will alert them to many of Rooney’s team-mates as well. “I’ll speak about the England team and the individuals who could be playing,” he said. “We’ve already done a bit of that. We’ve picked out passages of play England are good at and we’ll do more of that before the game. But it’ll be 16 to 18 players we’ll pick out who could play, and he’ll be one of them.”
Strachan wasn’t prepared to involve himself with the question of whether England have moved on quite happily from the days when this match defined the international fixture list for both countries. “We have Andy Murray anyway so we are fine,” he shrugged.