GORDON Strachan returns to Pittodrie this evening with much resting on his shoulders and a lot preying on his mind.
However, he likes it that way. He has woken with a start in recent mornings, and immediately started wrestling with the problem very few grandfathers have to concern themselves with: zonal marking or man-for-man marking? Or, perhaps more significantly, one striker or two?
The new international manager, who begins his tenure against Estonia tonight, has bid a temporary farewell to a life where decisions often proved no more burdensome that deciding what film to watch at the cinema. Just how temporary this detachment from the comforts of family life will prove relies on how well he can communicate his ideas about the game to a group of international footballers who are desperate to restore their reputation. An endlessly supportive Tartan Army looks on in hope, and more than 14,000 of them will congregate at Pittodrie to welcome Strachan back to a ground he knows so well.
Indeed, he could not resist popping into the stadium last week after naming his first Scotland squad in a local car showroom. When there, he was delighted to sit and shoot the north-east breeze with Craig Brown, one of his predecessors in the Scotland post. Also present was Archie Knox, Brown’s current assistant at Aberdeen, and Jocky Scott, a former team-mate of Strachan’s at Dundee and now first-team coach at Pittodrie.
“That’s the world I love,” said Strachan yesterday, as he contemplated his return to front-line management, with an old friend in Mark McGhee by his side. “Just sitting and talking and telling stories about what happened in this dressing-room years ago. It’s just memories. But I hope we can make some memories, which we can then all talk about in years to come as well.”
Strachan is alert to the level of responsibility he has been handed. He knows that Scotland can play games in whatever part of the country they wish and still have the same high expectations of the fans to cope with. They can also rely on the same deep well of passion wherever they go; be it Aberdeen or Glasgow or anywhere else. Strachan views Scotland as a “fitba’ country”. When it comes to sport, football continues to have the most impact on the nation’s happiness index, however gladdening are triumphs in other spheres.
“The main thing in Scotland is fitba’, that’s what keeps us really happy,” said Strachan. “It’s the thing we talk about most.
“I think we would all like to do a bit better,” he added. “We would all like to see Celtic doing well in Europe because it gives us all a lift. It helps when Stephen Gallacher wins at the golf the other day there. Andy Murray has been terrific, Stephen has won this, Paul Lawrie has done that. It’s great, but everyone still really wants their national football team to do great. We understand that.”
It is fair to say that the international team have severely tested the nation’s love for the game in recent years. Craig Levein’s time in charge can be described as many things, but it certainly wasn’t often fun or enjoyable. Sadly, it is associated with howls and whistles and screams of “get another striker on”.
Perhaps Strachan’s natural ebullience was as attractive to the Scottish Football Association board as his managerial CV, which even he might admit is a mixed bag. Indeed, should he emulate Levein by winning his first game in charge of Scotland, it will be the first time in his managerial career that he has tasted victory in his debut outing. The result, of course, is not the most crucial factor, although it would help in the process of ensuring Scotland drag themselves away from the likes of Cape Verde Islands and Sierra Leone in the Fifa rankings.
“If you get beat and it’s not a good performance then it’s not great,” acknowledged Strachan. “If you get beat and there is a real good performance then it will be fine. But we are animals of wanting to win.”
Strachan is already hinging much of his preparation work around the contrasting styles of the teams Scotland will face when the World Cup qualifying group resumes again next month, with a double-header against Wales and Serbia.
“The stuff we have done so far, until now, is basically how we will set up against the two teams we will come up against soon, who are a wee bit different,” he revealed.
The suggestion is that Strachan will employ a two-pronged strike-force this evening against Estonia, a team ranked 14 places below Scotland, at 83. While this should not be interpreted as a statement of intent for the duration of Strachan’s tenure, it should at least hearten Scotland fans who had become disillusioned by the lone-striker formation favoured by Levein. Such a set-up would also point towards Scotland starting the same way against Wales at Hampden, in a fixture that they have to win.
Indeed, Strachan’s pre-game manifesto might even find its way onto a banner by then: “Get as many goalscorers on the pitch as you can, get as many players who can take players on as you can”. He added that he you still need to ensure you are defensively sound. But as a start, it sounds deliciously promising.
Victory at Pittodrie will break manager’s depressing run of managerial debut failures
GORDON Strachan will be hoping it’s fifth time lucky when he takes charge of Scotland for the first time against Estonia at Pittodrie tonight – after failing to win any of his previous four managerial debuts.
13 November 1996
Coca-Cola Cup, third round replay
Coventry City 0 Gillingham 1
The 39-year-old replaced Ron Atkinson as manager of the Premier League outfit but they were still knocked out of the competition by their Division Two opponents – in spite of Strachan sending himself on for Eoin Jess in the second half.
24 October 2001
Southampton 3 Ipswich 3
Strachan’s side twice blew a two-goal lead against George Burley’s side but, although they were second-bottom of the table at the time, Strachan managed to guide them to an 11th-place finish.
27 July 2005:
Champions League second qualifying round, first leg:
Artmedia Bratislava 5 Celtic 0
Strachan’s first game in charge of Celtic was an absolute disaster.
New signings Paul Telfer, Mo Camara, Maciej Zurawski and Jeremie Aliadiere failed to shine and Chris Sutton was forced off after 17 minutes after Neil Lennon broke his nose. Celtic went out after winning the second leg 4-0 but went on to win the title and the League Cup.
31 October 2009
Middlesbrough 0 Plymouth 1
Strachan suffered a Halloween shocker, which set the tone for his ill-starred stay at the Riverside. His side went down to defeat thanks to a goal scored by future Scotland striker Jamie Mackie.
Results in the first game are not always a useful guide for Scotland managers. Alex McLeish, statistically our most successful national team boss, recorded a win at the first attempt.
However, the only other person to match that start in the past 30 years was Craig Levein, statistically the worst Scotland boss. Walter Smith lost his opening game but still managed to take Scotland 70 places higher in the FIFA rankings before quitting.
Craig Levein: 3 March 2010 (friendly) Scotland 1, Czech Republic 0
George Burley: 26 March 2008 (friendly) Scotland 1, Croatia 1
Alex McLeish: 31 March 2007 (ECQ) Scotland 2, Georgia 1.
Walter Smith: 26 March
2005 (WCQ) Italy 2, Scotland 0
Berti Vogts: 27 March, 2002 (friendly) France 5, Scotland 0
Craig Brown: 13 October 1993 (WCQ): Italy 3, Scotland 1
Andy Roxburgh: 10 September 1986 (ECQ):
Scotland 0 Bulgaria 0
Alex Ferguson: 16 October, 1985 (friendly): Scotland 0 , East Germany 0
• Tickets for Scotland v Estonia are available up until kick off at Pittodrie and via scottishfa.co.uk