It’s all about the style suiting the players and Strachan admits he got it wrong at Middlesbrough
Gordon Strachan will revisit his past next month when Scotland play Estonia at Pittodrie, the memory of happy times at Aberdeen in danger of clashing with an altogether more sober reminder of his football life as represented by the Estonian regular, Tarmo Kink. The midfielder plays his club football in Hungary now, but he was a Middlesbrough man once, brought to the Riverside by Strachan in the midst of the most desperate period of the Scot’s managerial career.
Amid all the feelgood of his appointment at Hampden on Tuesday there was also the ghost of Middlesbrough hanging in the air. That was Strachan’s last job, after all. Fourth in the Championship when he took over in October 2009 and 11th come the end of the season. After 11 games and only three wins of the following season and with the club in its lowest position in 20 years, Strachan resigned with a record of 13 victories from 46 games. His time there was an expensive calamity. He signed any number of players, many of them failing. “I’ve always earned my money everywhere I went – bar Middlesbrough,” he said last week, while refusing to whitewash what happened to him in England.
The debacle at the Riverside taught him a lesson, though. “I made bad decisions,” he said. “I tried to play the style of football I felt comfortable with but, after six months, I realised the players weren’t suited to it, so it was unfair on them.
“I should have used their assets and what they had at the time and then slowly changed over to what I thought was the right way. They had assets, that team. And they had faults.
“But what I wanted to do was rectify all the faults and play football the way I thought it should be played. I really should have said: ‘What have I got?’ I brought in too many loan players to bring in the style of football I wanted to play. I should have said: ‘We’re left with this – what can I do with the group here?’
“That was the one thing I learned and, hopefully because of that, I can be better at what I do. Listen, it’s far better you leave somewhere knowing it’s no-one else’s fault. Circumstances and your decisions caused that.”
If Strachan has an idea what formation he wants to deploy with Scotland, then he wasn’t giving it away.
The chances are that he is still genuinely thinking about what assets he has and how best to use them. It’s an ever-changing picture, of course. He was only in the job two minutes when he found out about Darren Fletcher’s sad predicament, the bowel surgery that takes the captain out for the rest of the season – at least.
Strachan made a point of saying that he wanted the stronger areas of his team to better protect the weaker, Fletcher being one of the strong and the heart of the defence being part of the weak. This is the first time in his life he’s had this problem – a key man goes down and he can’t go into the transfer market to try to replace him.
Before a day was up, Strachan had been sent a message from Lady Luck: “Welcome to your new life.”
“The style must fit the players,” he added. “That’s a must. I think what Brendan Rogers is doing at Liverpool is admirable but it took Swansea five years to do that. It started with Roberto Martinez, then Paulo Sousa, who didn’t move backwards, he kept that philosophy going, then Brendan. That took five years and they could bring in players to suit that style. “You can’t do that here. You’re either Scottish or you’re not. You can’t decide to play a certain style and say I’ll pick that Peruvian and put a ginger wig on him. That’s what you’ve got. But anyone with ginger hair and a bit peely wally – we’ll have a look at him!”
Strachan has already made a move, appointing his old chum Mark McGhee as his assistant. McGhee, himself, has had a wretched time in management over the last three and a half years, having been fired at his last two jobs with Aberdeen and Bristol Rovers. It’s not just the national team that is looking for redemption in the months ahead.
The new manager’s next task will be to get a group of senior players together, four in number. “The players can talk if they want. I’ll listen. I don’t know who the core will be in the Scotland team. I’ll need to see how they work. I’ll need to see who has a presence in the dressing room, who the players admire, that kind of thing. I’ll watch them for a couple of games and find out and find who the big personalities are and who I can trust. I’m not guaranteeing I will do it but that’s what I’ve done before.”
What he has also done before is make strides in the Champions League. When at Celtic, Strachan used to point out that the Champions League, and not international competition, was where it’s at in football these days. Despite his new job, he refused to backtrack on that opinion.
“The Champions League has overtaken everything. It’s blown everything away. People say that this player or that player hasn’t played in a World Cup but who cares as long you have played in the Champions League. That’s where every top player in the world plays. They all play in the Champions League.
“A lot of top players miss the World Cup Finals but they don’t miss out on the Champions League. That’s just the way it is.”
Strachan says he wants to play fewer friendlies and do more coaching, have more get-togethers and more thinking time. He has to take on the Estonia game but he’d sooner disappear for five days and work on shape, maybe put the senior team up against a youth team and try to develop a system that everybody is happy with.
“Every team has strong areas and weaker areas. Sometimes the stronger has to protect the weaker. Sometimes you have to play in a way that the weaker areas don’t get found out too often. Again, that will come down to finding a system that suits the squad.”
All of that awaits. Estonia, Wales, Serbia and Croatia and then England at Wembley in August. “I’m on holiday at the time! I’ll need to cancel them, won’t I! It will be great because I had my honeymoon there in 1977 when they all went on the pitch. I was on the pitch with my wife on our honeymoon. I stood off it, but a policeman invited me on because I seemed to be the only Scotsman who wasn’t on the pitch. He said: ‘You might as well go on son, and take your bride with you because she’ll look stupid in that dress’. I wasn’t far away from the crossbar and I was beside the guy who stole the rabbit from the greyhound track. He walked out with this rabbit flapping about.”
Homespun stuff from a bygone era. The pursuit of that old magic is about to begin anew.