THOUGH diminutive in stature, Gordon Strachan has proved more than adept at scaling the heights during his storied career in football.
As he left the Acropolis Convention Centre in Nice yesterday afternoon, the Scotland manager was walking tall in the belief he is capable of ending his country’s long absence from major tournament finals.
The Euro 2016 qualifying draw could have been kinder to Strachan and his Scotland squad, that much he observed himself. But there was also a recognition it could have been tougher, given Scotland’s status among the fourth pot of seeds.
When Peter Schmeichel, one of the goalkeeping legends on duty at the draw ceremony, pulled out Scotland’s name and placed them in Group D alongside Germany, Republic of Ireland, Poland, Georgia and Gibraltar, Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino was moved to say he could hear Strachan shouting “Yes!” from his seat in the audience.
The group certainly represents a challenge Strachan intends to take on with huge enthusiasm and no lack of confidence. He insists Scotland can even secure automatic qualification for the finals.
Whoever finishes second can expect to be in Germany’s wake with Joachim Löw’s side odds-on favourites to win it.
It was against pre-reunification West Germany that Strachan experienced one of the most iconic moments of his playing career. His attempt to vault an advertising hoarding after putting Scotland 1-0 up in the match at the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico ended with him comically placing just one leg on it, before the Germans hit back to win 2-1.
“Let’s just say this challenge represents a bigger hurdle to get over than that advertising board,” said Strachan with a smile. “But I think we are quite pleased with the draw. We’re excited about it but it’s also quite daunting as well. It’s an exciting challenge. That’s good.
“Over the last couple of weeks it hasn’t really bothered me, but then I turned up here, looked at the pots and thought ‘Here I am, this is good, I like this’.
“It could have been easier, but I think it’s exciting for a lot of reasons. First of all, you have Germany who are one of the best teams in the world and then you have Gibraltar who are new to the competition.
“But between that you have four teams, any one of which is capable of finishing in second place. People might think it will be between ourselves, Poland and the Republic of Ireland but I think Georgia will be in the mix as well. I think there are four teams who will be gunning for second place.
“I was looking about during the draw trying to work out who we could get. I was thinking to myself, ‘Do you want to be in that group? Hmm, maybe not!’
“There were other groups that I quite liked the look of but then someone else would join it and suddenly it didn’t look like such a great idea now. So the group we have ended up with is fine.
“I have walked out of that hall feeling that we have a chance of straight qualification and that’s a good thing. I would have felt that way no matter what group we ended up with.
“Like most things in management, you always have a chance if you can keep your players fairly fit and organised. I don’t have a problem with that. But I also know – because of the standard we are playing at – that you can fail as well. You’ve got to keep that in the back of the mind.”
Facing Germany will be a special thrill for Strachan who regards them as the ultimate role models for his own players.
“I said when I took over this job that I love watching Germany and I still do,” he added. “That’s the style of football I would like us to play – the Germany style and the Bayern Munich style – but we just don’t have the players to play it yet. They can play any sort of football, short passes, long passes, crosses. They have a great variation and I like that.”
There will be no shortage of familiarity when Scotland face their rivals from Pot 2, a Republic of Ireland side now managed by Strachan’s predecessor as Celtic manager, Martin O’Neill. According to the Scotland boss, the two matches with the Irish are unlikely to be ones for the footballing connoisseur to savour.
“I think they will be a bit like British cup-tie football,” said Strachan. “I don’t think they’ll be too cosmic to be honest with you. I think the crowd will make it that way.
“The managers might have all sorts of plans, but as soon as those teams get out of the door, the fans are going to turn it into a cup tie. I remember playing against the Republic during the Euro 88 qualifiers when they finished ahead of us and qualified for the finals. They were a right good side back then.”
With Poland emerging from Pot 3 in Scotland’s group, it means there will be an early dress rehearsal between the teams who face each other in a challenge match in Warsaw on 5 March. Strachan joked that he may attempt not to show too much of his hand to his Polish counterpart Adam Nawalka on Wednesday week.
“We’ve got a problem there,” he said. “Have you met our new midfield for that game? It’s myself and my coach Stuart McCall. The SFA president Campbell Ogilvie is in goals and big Kenny McLeod from the commercial department will be up front.
“Seriously, we’ve just got to get on with that game now. By the time the qualifiers come around, then we might be talking about different players and dealing with the usual call-offs.
“The Poles have a strong side, with great players like Robert Lewandowski up front. Their goalkeepers are terrific as well. As I say, it is an exciting group where a lot of the teams will fancy their chances.”