IF you are the kind of person who believes in omens then you might have looked to the skies above Hampden yesterday and wondered if the weather Gods were trying to tell us something.
All these predictions of snow, all these forecasts of darkness approaching and here we were cast in the light of a lovely winter’s afternoon. Gordon Strachan referred to the weather in his press conference. Everybody had told him it was going to be awful, he said. “But it’s a beautiful day out there.”
In the stadium, his face adorned the giant screens. You wouldn’t say there was a hype and hoopla about his arrival but it was like a carnival compared to the low-key introduction of his predecessor. For Strachan, bright skies and a big turn-out, many of the Hampden staff fetching up to swell the numbers in the Millennium Suite and make something of an occasion of it. For Craig Levein, something different.
When Levein was appointed there was also a forecast of snow and that time the forecast proved correct. It came down heavy. At one point, Levein couldn’t even dig the car out of the driveway to make his way to Glasgow from Fife. He eventually faced the media in the gloom of a December night. It was a grim scene, totally in contrast to yesterday.
Levein, like Strachan, was ushered into the job on a wave of popular approval. We forget that now, but in December of 2009 there were not many dissenting voices about the SFA’s decision to give him the role, just as there were very few when Strachan took over from him. Levein’s weaknesses were there for all to see but not many had the stomach to chew on them for long. His record at Dundee United was decent but hardly overwhelming. United had never finished above fifth in the SPL under Levein and had failed to establish a winning record against not just the Old Firm but against Motherwell, Hibs, Kilmarnock and Hamilton.
Instead, his strengths were focused on and exaggerated, strengths that slowly evaporated. He was considered a fine communicator, but he lost that skill soon enough when it came to the Steven Fletcher affair. He was praised for being his own man, but later that would manifest itself as a self-defeating stubbornness. He prided himself on his honesty, but when things started to go badly wrong he began to kid himself. The bottom line was that we thought we knew Levein, but we didn’t. Not really. We didn’t know how he would be when the pressure hit him. With Strachan, we can be sure.
We understand what he is like. Levein never experienced pressure in management like he did when he took on the Scotland job and it diminished him. As Celtic manager for four years, Strachan has seen it all. Whatever pressure comes his way in the months and years ahead, it’s not going to fry his brain after all he has already experienced at Celtic Park.
When he was at Parkhead we used to talk to him about the burden of life in Glasgow. This was an attempt to get under his skin, to get to understand the real man. Most attempts were futile. He’ll give you so much of his life but then the barriers go up and the barriers are in the form of wit.
Not long before he left Celtic he sat down with a few journalists and he spoke about how he uses sarcasm. “It’s a Scottish trait,” he said. “It’s one of our great exports, sarcasm. I use it in humour, some people think it’s funny at times, some people don’t. It depends how you feel about the individual [namely, him]. But Scotland is polluted with sarcasm, I mean polluted with it.”
As if to prove the point, in that same interview he was soon asked about how difficult it must be at times to live in the middle of Glasgow as Celtic manager. Instead of answering it, he used his humour to get away from a question that was a headline in the making if he’d answered it straight. Instead, he told a story about the night he went for a walk with his wife, Lesley, a story that illustrated his knack of going from intense to lighthearted when he feels things are getting too heavy. It’s an ability that might help his new players, for lately they have looked they’re carrying the world and its wife on their shoulders.
“You’ve got to see this to believe it,” he began. “We watch Britain’s Got Talent and we always go for a walk after that. So we’re walking through the park and there was a guy walking towards us, about 15 yards away. A smart fella. About 25 or 26. And the closer he gets he starts smiling at Lesley. I’m thinking she must know him from somewhere. He goes right up to her and says, ‘Fancy a date?’ She said no. ‘Oh right,’ he says. ‘What about some other time?’ No.
“Then he says, ‘I’ll be better than the old guy’. I’m looking at him like that. He says to Lesley, ‘Well, that’s your bad luck then’. He walked away and turned around and says ‘By the way, he’s ginger-haired and ugly as well’.
“Have you ever heard anything like that in your life? He was not a scruff-bag or anything. He was a half-decent fella. I was shocked. Me and Lesley, we never spoke for five minutes. I didn’t mind the ugly ginger-haired bit. It was the old guy bit. He never knew who I was by the way. Hadn’t a clue. I was just ginger-haired and ugly. I was gobsmacked for the first time in my life.”
If the players he is about to inherit are feeling down on their luck, then Strachan’s charisma should have an impact. Without question, these Scotland players feel besieged, a number of them already speaking out about how the press have done them down. There is a self-pity that is damaging, a lack of confidence that needs addressing. Enter Strachan.
You could see how at ease he was in his press conference, the canny way in which he deals with slightly awkward questions. Levein was prone to talking his way into trouble. Strachan is adept at dancing away from it. He uses humour brilliantly. If he’s not sure about a question, he delivers a nice one-liner and everybody laughs and it’s time for the next one.
Humour is his defence mechanism but also a tool he uses to lighten a mood. It’s hard to envisage Strachan getting bogged down in needless controversy the way his predecessor did. As a communicator he is streets ahead. Even yesterday he dealt with his troubled spell at Middlesbrough with a deft touch. Middlesbrough was his last job in management and something of a stick for his opponents to beat him with. He had any number of ways of dealing with that part of his story but he chose the route that disarmed anybody who was thinking of grilling him on what went wrong.
Strachan held his hands up and said that he had nobody to blame but himself for what happened at Middlesbrough. He made critical mistakes and he has learned from them. He won’t be making the same mistakes twice. It was a clever way of handling a potentially troublesome situation. By refusing to apportion blame he came across as impressively honest, a man who was big enough to admit when he got something wrong. Not quite a negative into a positive, but maybe a negative diffused somewhat. In this regard, the mind drifted back to Levein once more. The former Scotland manager couldn’t admit a failing even when it was staring him right in the face. And didn’t have the verbal dexterity to handle it when asked about it.
Of course, the view of Strachan is greatly helped by what he did in his years at Celtic. He could have all the political skills in the world but unless there was something substantial underpinning it then it would count for nothing. As a manager, he has a track record of SPL titles and Champions League success with Celtic, of storied victories against Manchester United and AC Milan and two visits to the last 16 of the pre-eminent competition in European club football, one of those adventures only coming to an end with a 1-0 aggregate loss to the eventual winners – after two legs and then 30 minutes of extra time on top. In short, he commands respect.
Through all of this, he had a section of Celtic fans sniping at him. He had led them forward and had done it more successfully – and on a much smaller budget – than Martin O’Neill ever had, and yet he was chastised by his own fans for the quality of his team’s football when winning his second and third title. Strachan’s side was not playing the Celtic Way, apparently. The performances were dour. He was lucky that Rangers were so bad. When he responded to the jibes – mostly he ignored them – he said that the Celtic Way, as he understood it, was winning. That’s what the club was about. Winning. Nothing else mattered.
Winning with Scotland is a Herculean challenge but what better time to take the job than when people have such low expectations. Strachan would not be drawn on the system he is intending to deploy or the players he wants to deploy it, but he knows the weaknesses better than anybody. All he would say about the frailties in his team was that the strong must protect the weak. Basically, his good central midfielders must be more cognizant of the vulnerability at centre-half.
Strachan’s Scotland is not going to be glamorous. To borrow a word from his lexicon, the football is not going to be “cosmic”, but there is hope that it could be clever and effective and a level of optimism now that the dog days under Levein could turn into something better in the hands of a man who is comfortable in this job and well-equipped to make the most of what he has.