THERE are still more than three months until Scotland set out on a road they hope will lead to the end of their long exile from major tournament finals.
But for Gordon Strachan, tonight’s challenge match against Nigeria at Craven Cottage is effectively his dress rehearsal for the start of that Euro 2016 qualifying campaign against Germany in Dortmund on 7 September.
It is why the Scotland manager has been at pains to avoid any sense that his squad are simply fulfilling a relatively insignificant end-of-season commitment in London.
Strachan is determined not to lose any of the positivity and optimism which has built up around the national team under his stewardship. As they seek to extend their current unbeaten run to six matches, his players have not disappointed him with their approach so far this week.
“There is absolutely no end of season feel to it,” said Strachan. “It is actually more a beginning of the season standard they have brought to training. We have tried to keep up the momentum with the intensity of our training. We did two sessions on Monday, when it was lashing with rain, which was great.
“We had planned to have another two sessions today, but with the intensity of the work they produced in the morning, added to the surface water at the training pitch, we decided enough was enough.
“We will now do more than we normally do in the morning session before the game. There are a couple of things I need to look at before I meet the boys again.
“We’ll have them together for a week before the Germany game, to work on shape and what we are going to try and do. That will be more beneficial, so everyone knows their job. We are at the stage now where it is repetitive stuff.
“We have added one or two wee things I’ve thought about over the last couple of months since our last game. But more than 60 per cent of it is the same stuff again – where do we go when the ball is in different areas, to make sure we are in decent shape. It seems to be working all right, because of how few goals we have conceded recently, but we have to try and get some more freedom into our play, more imagination when we’ve got the ball. That’s what we’ve been trying to do in the last couple of training sessions.”
Scotland opted for tonight’s game against African champions Nigeria on neutral soil in preference to other end-of-season fixtures offered to them, including a two-match trip to face Chile and Uruguay in South America, which Northern Ireland have undertaken. Strachan has no doubt he made the right choice.
“I don’t think we would have got the same intensity from the players if we’d gone to South America for a couple of games,” he added. “In fact, it would have been nearly impossible, especially if the result in the first game wasn’t good.
“Going back to my own playing days, I can remember feeling you could get one good game out of me for Scotland at this stage of a season. You can concentrate and really focus on one friendly – it’s difficult for two.
“This will be a great test for us. Nigeria are physically strong and I would imagine every one of their players wants to be in that starting line-up when they go to the World Cup finals next month.”
Strachan is likely to keep experimentation to a minimum tonight. He had initially hoped to assess newcomer Chris Martin as a member of his starting line-up as he seeks alternatives for the lone striker role in his 4-2-3-1 formation which has proved so effective in recent matches.
But the 25-year-old Derby County forward, who qualifies for Scotland through his Glaswegian father, was delayed in joining up with the squad due to his club commitments after their English Championship play-off final defeat by QPR at Wembley on Saturday.
“I had been keen to get Chris in on the Monday, to do the two sessions and have a good look at him,” said Strachan. “But we have only seen one session with him, albeit it was terrific. I had hoped to see how he did alongside the Shaun Maloneys and Scott Browns over a couple of sessions. But Derby wanted to keep the players back, for whatever reason.
“So that has altered my thinking on it a wee bit. The stuff he showed this morning was first class, but I don’t know if it is long enough [to decide to start him].
“The English play-off final can be either the best or worst game in the world – unfortunately for the Derby lads, it was the worst. But I’ve said to them that a lot of teams who fall at that hurdle go on to do well the following season.
“Our training has been helped by the players who have not been with us before, like Peter Pawlett and Mark Reynolds, from Aberdeen, and the Derby lads, Chris and Craig Forsyth. The ones who have been in the squad for a while also want to impress the new guys, so there has been an intensity.”
Craig Bryson, who has been in previous Strachan squads, is another who may have to settle for a place on the bench despite his outstanding season for Derby, where he was Player of the Year.
“With Craig Bryson, it’s a question of fitting him into a system,” added Strachan. “He has a certain system he likes to play in at Derby. But we have good players who are not getting into the team because they don’t fit into our system at the moment. It would be great to be able to use them.”