MARK McGhee has admitted Scotland must start turning plaudits into victories if the progress made under manager Gordon Strachan is to lead them to the 2016 European Championship finals in France.
The Scots emerged with credit but no points from their opening Group D qualifier against world champions Germany in Dortmund last month, while rivals Poland and Republic of Ireland both recorded wins.
Strachan’s squad now face Georgia at Ibrox on Saturday, before travelling to take on the Poles in Warsaw next Tuesday night, under pressure not to fall off the pace early in the campaign as they did in their 2014 World Cup qualifying group under Craig Levein.
Although Strachan’s assistant McGhee is at odds with suggestions that the current management team have enjoyed an extended honeymoon period since taking over 18 months ago, he appreciates the widespread demand and expectation among supporters and pundits for all three points this weekend.
“I’m not trying to give ourselves any leeway,” said McGhee. “If we are going to qualify for France, we have to start winning games. All the positives we have managed to achieve so far have to start manifesting themselves in points.
“There is no better place to start than a home game at Ibrox where everything is set for it. There will be twists and turns along the way, regardless of what happens on Saturday night. At the end of it you want to qualify, whatever it takes.
“I don’t think Gordon and I needed, demanded or expected a honeymoon period. I remember us coming back from losing the game in Serbia last year and feeling devastated at the 2-0 loss. It wasn’t just because of the performance, but because when we took over there was at least still an opportunity we could qualify for the World Cup.
“So we took responsibility for the first two performances and results and we would have been quite happy to accept some form of criticism for them.
“Because we were just in the job, though, you guys in the press didn’t criticise us. We are grateful for that, because it took some of the pressure off and let us develop things in our head.
“But it started for us the day we arrived and I think we have been big enough to accept that responsibility. Therefore I don’t think it suddenly starts again on Saturday.
“One of the things I have majored on whenever I’ve spoken is our performance levels, about consistency of performance as well as the way the performance looks in terms of the aesthetics and whether people enjoy seeing it. But also in terms of what you achieve. That’s our priority. To maintain that level of performance and then we see where that takes us. We have got to this point by what happened before – so for me it doesn’t start with what happens on Saturday night.”
Strachan has had to make just one change to his original 27-man squad, injured Hull City goalkeeper Allan McGregor being replaced by Matt Gilks of Burnley. But that role in the team against Georgia will be a straight contest between Cardiff City’s David Marshall, given the nod for the 2-1 defeat in Germany last month, and Celtic’s rejuvenated Craig Gordon.
“I don’t remember Scotland ever having three such high quality ’keepers at the same time,” said McGhee. “They are all very modern ’keepers, great with the ball at their feet as well.
“McGregor is out this time but we have two others who can step up and it’s a great position to be in. You could put all the goalkeepers’ names in a hat and you’d be absolutely confident of whoever you picked out doing the job.”
McGhee revealed Strachan has also been impressed with the two newcomers to the squad this week – Sporting Lisbon midfielder Ryan Gauld and Sheffield Wednesday striker Stevie May. In the case of 18-year-old Gauld, McGhee insists he is not simply involved to gain experience.
“Gordon is very pleased with both Stevie and Ryan,” he said. “I pulled Ryan aside this morning and I said to him that before the Croatia game last year we called Barry Bannan up at the last minute. Barry trained so well, he ended up playing and has now played several games for us.
“So I said to Ryan ‘Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to try. You don’t need to think you are just here so we can get a look at you’. It’s up to him really as to how much he shows Gordon about where he fits into the pecking order.
“It’s not a decision that has been made prior to him arriving here. He is here as one of the squad and if he shows up well enough, he has a chance. He has a lot of good players ahead of him. It’s hard for him to move up too quickly. But he can certainly put himself in Gordon’s mind.”
Among the other midfield considerations for Strachan is the lack of recent match action for captain Darren Fletcher who has made only one 25-minute substitute appearance for Manchester United since playing for Scotland in Germany five weeks ago.
With Celtic captain Scott Brown back in the squad after missing out last time, there are options for the holding midfield positions but McGhee insists there are no concerns over Fletcher’s readiness.
“We are a Scotland team on the up and he plays for Manchester United,” said McGhee. “They are two different things, given the investment United have put into the team. It’s difficult for Darren at the moment to maintain his position in the United team but for us he’s a top player, a top influence and we have no qualms about that.
“We have lots of players in the team who haven’t been playing regularly and certainly given Darren’s approach to his position and his professionalism we would have no qualms at all.
“As well as having Scott back, we also have James Morrison and James McArthur for those positions. Gordon has a difficult choice picking two of them. But, as with the goalkeepers, you could put all the names in a hat and be happy with any two you picked out.”