Can Strachan’s brave new dawn be turned into bright daylight, asks football writer Andrew Smith
ANY year in which yet another major finals passes Scotland by can hardly be considered vintage. But the fact that a degree of satisfaction can be derived from the national team’s efforts across 2013 is testament to the remarkable turnaround in – at least short-term – fortunes that can be attributed to the guidance of Gordon Strachan. A transformation that looked a world, never mind a World Cup, away when his first competitive games in charge brought a desperate 2-1 home defeat to Wales and equally dispiriting 2-0 loss in Serbia days later in late March.
These games not only arithmetically confirmed Scotland’s spectator-only interest in this summer’s Brazilian extravaganza – a predicament accepted from the previous November, which lay behind the SFA then ending the disastrous reign of Craig Levein to pave the way for Strachan’s arrival. The desultory displays in the Group A double-header – which followed an overly-cheered 1-0 friendly win against Estonia in Strachan’s first game – meant that, for the first time in their history, Scotland slumped to four consecutive competitive defeats.
At that point the savage obituaries for Scotland as an international football nation started to appear at a dizzying rate.
Little wonder, with Scotland now about to miss out on the eighth major finals played since the 1998 World Cup. Amid the anger and the angst, sympathy was rightly extended to Strachan, below, for a situation not of his making. When a raft of regulars called off for the World Cup qualifier away to Croatia in June, the Balkans trip was presented as a lambs to the slaughter assignment.
The stunning win, courtesy of a first-half Robert Snodgrass strike, over the then fourth-placed team in the FIFA rankings, changed 2013 utterly for Scotland and Strachan. That night in Zagreb, partly because he had no one else, the Scotland boss paired international novices Russell Martin and Grant Hanley at centre-back. The pair may have many flaws but have become a fixture of Strachan’s Scotland sides and shown a durability and willingness to put their bodies on the line that has been important to Scotland ending the year on a run of four games unbeaten.
Indeed, it was Wembley that witnessed the Scots’ last loss, and even in that August fixture to mark the English FA’s 150th anniversary, Strachan and his men made contributions to engender optimism. In the first meeting between the ancient adversaries for 14 years, goals from James Morrison and Kenny Miller – on his international swansong – allowed the Tartan Army to dream of another London lashing of the Auld Enemy to follow on from the 1-0 scoreline in 1999 that didn’t prevent their hosts triumphing over the two legs of a Euro 2000 play-off. Alas, Strachan’s team wilted late on with England just about deserving their 3-2 victory.
The reshaped, re-energised and refocused Scotland that Strachan has succeeded in creating in a matter of months have never wilted since. A short, progressive passing game has allowed them to look more at home on the international stage than seemed conceivable in March, when they slipped to 78th in the world rankings – 44 places lower than they are now.
A new figure was welcomed on to the international stage as Scotland defeated Macedonia 2-1 in October, with Ikechi Anya scoring as the winger enjoyed a full debut he might struggle to surpass. The player was to the fore as Scotland then completed a double over Croatia with as complete a performance as they have produced in years to secure a 2-0 victory. Again Snodgrass, becoming a key performer for Strachan, took the plaudits.
An unremarkable scoreless draw to the USA in a November friendly was followed by a 1-0 win away to Norway that was remarkable because Scotland played badly and yet emerged unscathed. Maybe under Strachan luck as well as judgment will be on the side of his team as he insisted they must improve to harbour any hopes of qualifying for the 24-nation Euro 2016 in France.
Those who remain to be convinced by Strachan’s brave new dawn point to the fact that the recent run has been achieved when there has been no pressure on the players. That will change when the qualifiers get under way in August, the draw being made in February. Strachan has enjoyed a terrific six months in charge of the country. It will, though, be eight months before we know if this had any lasting relevance.