While sitting at the table during dinner on Monday night, Gordon Strachan turned to Mark McGhee and remarked on the low number of call-offs for the forthcoming friendlies against United States and Norway.
While this might underline how the bar is set quite low when it comes to reasons to be cheerful with Scotland, it does point to a new sense of well-being within the squad and gives cause for optimism. On too many occasions have Scotland’s hopes been derailed by the high number of withdrawals.
No-one is saying that the injuries were always of the spurious kind, but it didn’t always look good. The lowest point perhaps came when Craig Levein had to deal with nine call-offs for a friendly match against the Faroe Isles in Aberdeen three years ago this month.
It is too simplistic to say that the current climate is purely down to the new manager. It isn’t true to say Scotland players have always skipped merrily to their base in Renfrewshire, even under Strachan.
After all, it is only five months since the manager was dealt a series of blows in the run-up to the game in Croatia in June, when eight players withdrew from the squad for a competitive fixture. Scotland, of course, had yet to win a game in Group A and were already long eliminated from the qualifying equation.
This experience left Strachan visibly shaken but he dusted himself down and worked with what he had. It was in Zagreb that, despite the pre-match setbacks, the manager’s reign really took off with a 1-0 win eked out of such unpromising circumstances.
McGhee yesterday referred to Scotland’s recent fortunes as being a “double dip revival”. He meant that the victory in Croatia was followed by defeats by Belgium and England, before the recent pair of victories over Serbia and Croatia put Scotland back on the right track again.
Even in defeat by England there were plenty of signs of progress. The win against Croatia at Hampden was particularly pleasing since, as McGhee pointed out, it “got rid of the bogey” of not having won a competitive fixture at home since 2011. Also heartening is the upsurge in young players coming through at clubs, specifically Dundee United.
McGhee described it as “embarrassing” for those based in England when the subject of young players in Scotland came up.
He explained: “When you spoke to people down the road, they would say: ‘What’s the point of going up there? There are no players up there.’ ” Joe Jordan recently commented that Queens Park Rangers, where he is assistant manager, have now begun to send scouts to Scotland again.
“Now everyone is talking in positive terms again,” he said. Of course, the likes of Ryan Gauld and John Souttar, to name but two of United’s new breed, are a long way from stepping into the full Scotland team, but there will be a need to bring in replacements for the elder members of the current squad in time. Indeed, it is already happening. McGhee made the point that the likes of Gary Caldwell are nearing the end of their international careers and so need to be replaced.
“By no means am I making a judgment that Gary Caldwell won’t play again for Scotland, of course he might, but regardless of whether he plays this year or next, he is coming to the end of his career,” he said. “We have to replace these players and at one time you looked at it and wondered where these replacements are going to come from. Now we are looking at it and thinking there are players who can give us hope that there are replacements there.”
Players now feel they have to turn up or else they risk losing their place. All of which points to a happy camp, something the assistant manager dwelled on yesterday. As he was speaking, Gary Mackay-Steven could be seen checking into the Scotland headquarters over his shoulder. He was one of only two call-ups – Craig Conway is the other – required after the withdrawals of James Forrest, James Morrison and Chris Burke because of injury. The addition of Mackay-Steven alone helps the spirit among the players. “I don’t know what he does, whether he breathes helium or something, but he’s always smiling so he’s good to have here as well,” said McGhee.
The assistant manager hoped that the “malaise” which made players reluctant to turn up, particularly for friendlies, had now disappeared.
“The manager made the point sitting around the dinner table,” he added. “When you look at, say, Croatia, it’s the same group of players time in time out and there are very few changes. The changes seem to be about the manager making a tactical decision.
“His mind is not made up because five of the players don’t turn up. The less that this happens, the better it is for us to continually and consistently pick the team. If someone goes out through injury you can’t do anything about that. We have certainly found a group of players, like Craig Conway, who want to be here. And there are others who aren’t here who want to be here. And will be here again.”