MARK McGhee has expressed his dismay at Scotland’s miserable record at Hampden as they try to avoid completing a continental qualifying campaign without a home win for the first time in the country’s international history.
Scotland assistant manager McGhee believes the Tartan Army have become inured to failure at the national stadium and he is urging the players to change that mood with a victory over Croatia on Tuesday night in the final match of the failed 2014 World Cup campaign.
The Scots have taken just two points from their previous four home games in Group A, drawing at home to Serbia and Macedonia then suffering defeats against Wales and Belgium. They have not won a competitive fixture at home since the 1-0 Euro 2012 qualifying victory over Lithuania at Hampden more than two years ago.
Although Scotland failed to win at home during the 1954 World Cup qualifying campaign, at that time the British International Championship was used to determine who would go through.
Since World Cup and European Championship qualifying were established on continental lines, Scotland have always won at least one home fixture.
McGhee hopes Gordon Strachan’s squad can build on recent improved performances away from home and translate them into a morale-boosting Hampden win against Croatia on Tuesday ahead of next year’s Euro 2016 qualifiers.
“I know that the Scotland support have become a little bit resigned to what they see at Hampden,” said McGhee.
“What brought it home to me was the kind of shrug of the shoulders reaction after we lost to Wales in March. There wasn’t a tumultuous defiance about being beaten by Wales.
“There was a shrug and a feeling of ‘that’s just what happens to us’. We have to change that. We’ve started that process and now we have to continue that. We lost to a great side in Belgium in our last game at Hampden last month, but it was at home and it was another defeat nonetheless.
“It comes from the team. If the team deliver mediocre results and performances at Hampden, then that becomes the norm.
“What we hope to do is change that mentality. There has to be a certain pressure on the players, there has to be a certain level of expectation in order to force performances from them. So I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
“I don’t think the pressure being off them is the best way to get good performances. So going into Tuesday, after four good performances and two good wins from our last four games, it galvanises you a bit.
“Looking back at the previous home games in the group, we could have won against Serbia and Macedonia at the start of the campaign. There were chances in both games. I think it’s a thin line away from looking a bit better than it does now.
“The Wales defeat will live with myself, Gordon and Stuart (McCall) forever no matter what we go on to achieve. That will always be a very, very disappointing performance and result. We have to find a better start to the games at home.
“It’s about taking the initiative in games and against a team such as Croatia it can be hard to be cavalier, but we have to try and establish a pattern. If we can get that start, it might change how it looks at Hampden. Maybe there is less pressure and expectation away from home for teams – and that includes us. Other teams and countries like Croatia expect their team to win at home.
“But given our performances in the four games we’ve just played, I think that pressure is back on us.
“Regardless of how we played against Wales at Hampden, our fans will be turning up on Tuesday expecting at least the possibility of a victory.”
Scotland’s recent run of improved form under Strachan was sparked by their unexpected 1-0 victory over Croatia in Zagreb in June. But McGhee stresses there is still much work ahead of the management team, but feels that night set the template for what they hope to achieve with the national team.
“It is still too early to say it was a turning point,” he added. “But it was definitely a starting point for Gordon. It gave us something tangible in terms of a result and a performance. There were a lot of variables that came together. The players showed they had a desire to play for Scotland. In the way they played, they followed Gordon’s model to perfection and scored a winning goal.
“We said at the time that the performance was as important as the result. It was fantastic to win but we wanted to see an improvement, a team with a shape and a purpose. We’ve now done that in each of the last four games regardless of the result. At least the shape and the team has looked the same.
“The fans who come to Hampden on Tuesday should expect to see the same performance – because as coaches, we are. Regardless of the result, it should always look the same.”
Croatia’s motivation at Hampden will be dependent on their result against Belgium tonight which will determine whether they can still win Group A or have to settle for a play-off spot. McGhee is keen for Scotland to face them at their best, most notably with Luka Modric in their line-up after the Real Madrid playmaker missed the last meeting of the teams in June. “It’s like Andy Murray winning Wimbledon and people saying ‘Oh, but so and so wasn’t playing’,” said McGhee. “We beat Croatia but Modric wasn’t playing. I’d like to see us beat Croatia with Modric in the team. It would reaffirm what we did in Zagreb.
“They are a hugely different team without Modric. I’d liken it to Barcelona coming to Parkhead last week without Lionel Messi. It’s not just one player out of 11, or 9 per cent of the team. It’s 30 per cent of their team. It is the DNA of the team. Modric is the one who makes them the special team that they are. Without him, they are a good team. With him, they are a special team.”
Robert Snodgrass, Scotland’s match-winner in Zagreb, was absent from training yesterday as his wife was due to give birth.
But the Norwich City man is expected to be available for the match. “Gordon has said she has 24 hours,” smiled McGhee, “or he will be going down to the hospital to induce the baby himself!”