Scotland manager Gordon Strachan has revealed that his players enjoyed their best training session of the year this week at their Renfrewshire headquarters, prior to boarding a plane to Norway for tonight’s friendly international in Molde.
The additions of Kris Boyd and Stuart Armstrong following Friday night’s draw with the United States helped freshen things up, with Strachan preparing to unveil a new system at the Aker Stadion this evening. Boyd announced his arrival in typical fashion yesterday morning as he quickly settled back into the groove.
“The first thing he did in training was put the ball in the top corner,” said skipper Scott Brown. “As soon as he did that, I thought, ‘Boydie’s back’.”
Perhaps the presence of Bob Dylan, who is playing in Glasgow this week, helped concentrate their minds back in Scotland yesterday morning. A few managed to get autographs on Sunday evening as news of Dylan’s arrival spread through the squad.
It is not known whether he watched yesterday’s training from the hotel watchtower. However, the famously contrary singer could certainly have given Strachan a few tips on how to improvise on the hoof as the manager is forced to shuffle his cards again after Friday night’s 0-0 draw against Dylan’s compatriots.
He has been left with two strikers – Steven Naismith and Boyd. It is the manager’s last international assignment of the year and some might wonder about the attractiveness of a fixture which brought Scotland to the coastal town of Kristiansund in driving sleet yesterday evening to play a Norwegian side that is very much in transition. Strachan, however, sees it as an opportunity to experiment after a year of gradual improvement.
Boyd’s willingness to accept the call-up for a fixture some others might have regarded as non-essential spoke volumes of a player bidding to re-establish himself in the international arena after several lost years.
This time last year the focus was on Jordan Rhodes, who scored twice against Luxembourg in Billy Stark’s only game in charge following Craig Levein’s departure. Boyd, by contract, hardly represents the future.
However, Strachan defended calling up the 30-year-old Kilmarnock player, who last appeared for Scotland three years ago.
He paid tribute to his professionalism and revealed that he was pleasantly surprised when he got to know the player, who had often been a thorn in his side when the pair were on opposing sides of the Old Firm divide. “I feared him for a while when he was at Rangers, I admired him when I wasn’t there [at Celtic],” said Strachan.
The return to the Scotland equation is reward for Boyd’s standout play this season in a struggling Kilmarnock side. Often cast as feckless and uninterested, Strachan yesterday raised eyebrows when he referred to Boyd as a “connoisseur of football”. He added: “He takes in everything and he works hard at training.”
Strachan evoked Stark, his former team-mate at Aberdeen, when explaining that there is a difference between effortless class and lack of effort, with the latter accusation being the one that is often thrown at Boyd. “Scottish people go for the ‘run about, kick them, shove them and bite them’ type players,” observed Strachan. “They identify with that.
“Alan Hansen, they go: ‘What’s he doing passing? Get him up the pitch so he can boot people up in the air and we can scream and shout.’ Billy Stark was similar, Gary McAllister was similar. It was incredible that he got any abuse whatsoever because he was a top, top player.
“Scottish fans and Scottish people sometimes don’t identify with that. There are different people and you have to take them for what they are, but as long as they can add to the group with what they’ve got then that’s fine.”
No-one is pretending that Boyd is anything other than a stand-in after a spate of striking call offs but Strachan hopes it underlines how you are never too old for a recall – or too far in the international wilderness. The 30-year-old Boyd is aware that people perceived his career to have been in abeyance at first Middlesbrough and then in Turkey and America.
He is now back in Scotland doing what he knows he does best – scoring goals. He has struck six times in 12 games this season, which is a ratio similar to his current Scotland strike rate of seven goals in 18 caps.
Whether Plan B stands for Boyd remains to be seen. It is more likely that the striker will be used as a second-half substitute and that the B will represent Craig Bryson, another player with Kilmarnock ties, and someone earmarked to start in midfield for the first since making his debut as a substitute against the Faroe Isles three years ago. According to Brown, the onus tonight is on passing the ball out from defence and building play from midfield.
“We need to try and get the two central defenders to take the ball and get the midfield to come and take it and play from there,” he said.
Strachan was less forthcoming, but he is happy to have the chance to finish the year with something a little different. “I want to clear my mind,” he said. “We don’t have to win by a lot of goals: I just want to see whether this particular system can be used later on.
“We’ve worked on it for the past few days just to put some pictures in the players’ minds. We could easily have made Sunday a rest day but I’ve got to say that it was the best training session we’ve had this year.
“It was fantastic in terms of what we asked them to do and because it was a bit different. I wouldn’t say that it’s a Plan B because it could become Plan A. You never know.”
“But I certainly wouldn’t want to sit around now and then try it in seven months’ time. So let’s have a look at it now.”