THE mind games have already started ahead of Scotland’s trip to Wembley next month.
In fact they started a while ago when Gordon Strachan bamboozled his English counterpart Roy Hodgson, right, and his wife and left them scratching their heads.
“I’ve seen Roy twice during the summer. The first time I bumped into him and his wife outside Selfridges. There was a guy playing bagpipes and I said ‘This guy follows me everywhere, Roy!’ and his missus looked at me like I was daft! Roy just looked at me strangely as well.”
The Scotland boss will be hoping his men leave him looking equally perplexed when their teams go head to head in London on 14 August.
The international managers met for a second time during the summer, that time at Wimbledon, with Strachan joking that the England manager “was trying to be Scottish because Andy Murray was playing that day!”
It suggests that while the Scottish fans consider a clash with the Auld Enemy to be serious business, for the manager it remains good natured. His mood has certainly been aided by the unexpected victory in Croatia when the squad last got together in June.
“The world is always a better place after a win. There is nothing better for team spirit and confidence. The Croatia game was a real away game. We were up against a smashing side. But will Wembley be like a home game or an away game? I’ve no idea. It may be like playing on a neutral ground. The fans love it. It’s not a real away game.” The players are also tuned into playing south of the Border with 22 of the 29-man squad plying their trade in English football and given the banter that will undoubtedly be rife in the build-up and aftermath, every one of them is desperate to play.
“They will all love it. They are all looking forward to it. They were all phoning Frank, who looks after me, wondering if they would be in the squad and he couldn’t give anything anyway. They were all wanting tickets but unfortunately for them I will get to the tickets before them. [My friends and family] have got the minibus booked already!”
While Croatia were ranked fourth in the world when they were undone by that Robert Snodgrass goal, England are currently ranked 15th. They may not be the force they once were, but Strachan maintains they still have a quality in their ranks.
“England have great players in there, for sure. If you put most of the players in that squad up for sale it would be some amount of money getting mentioned for them. But every team has good periods and bad periods. At this moment they are doing OK. They are not doing badly but probably not doing as great as everybody would expect.”
The win over Croatia has not disguised Scotland’s place in the world rankings. Sitting 50th in the world, Strachan says it is very much a case of one step at a time. Having proved themselves impossible to break down in Zagreb, the next step is to be more positive, according to Strachan.
“We’ll have to be more progressive in this game and that will help us. We need to build on how to break teams down with the ability we have. We’ll try to do that against England. When we have the ball we have to feel this is a home game. We have the players to do that. When we have a full selection, we have the players to open teams up. It’s about getting the right system to suit the players. It’s not picking a system first and then picking the players. We have to find a system that suits our best attacking players.”
But defensively, there will be dilemmas to solve. With the likes of Theo Walcott posing the questions, Strachan needs to decide who the answer is at the back.
The national gaffer has watched him flourish since his graduation from the Southampton Youth Academy and knows how tough an opponent he can be. “He’d join us on school holidays and days off. We used to play against him – the coaching staff against the youth team. He’d play for the youths against us and we used to restrict him to two touches – he couldn’t run very far with just two touches! He was about 14 at that time and a very pleasant lad, brought up properly by his parents and the Southampton academy brought kids up the right way. They’ve produced as many good kids as any other academy in the past 20 years.”
Without the luxury of imposing a two-touch rule on Walcott at Wembley, the Scotland defence will need to be alert. But, while he was limited in his options in that area of the park against Croatia, forcing him to ask full-back Russell Martin to partner young Grant Hanley in the central berths, he unearthed a partnership that earned rave reviews and helped keep a clean sheet. It leaves Strachan something to ponder over the next couple of weeks.
“Yeah, to be fair Russell did pester me, saying he was a centre half. I thought ‘Oh well, that is very good because there are not too many of them going about’. So, we took a chance and trusted him because none of us had seen him play centre half. His performance, I thought, was terrific. At the moment… young Hanley – he can be a good player but he is raw. You will probably get one mistake a game from him. The good thing is that if you get away with that mistake then you will get a terrific performance from him. That is the way he is. And I liked a lot of things about Russell.”
A man who isn’t afraid to stand up and be counted is always going to earn plaudits from Strachan, but with a 29-man squad there is competition for every starting berth.