SCOTLAND manager Gordon Strachan hailed the spirit of his players last night after they ended their World Cup qualifying campaign on a high with a 2-0 victory over Croatia.
Scotland 2-0 Croatia
Scorers: Scotland - Snodgrass (28), Naismith (73)
Goals from Robert Snodgrass and Steven Naismith were enough to claim the points and secure a fourth-place finish for Scotland in Group A, while Croatia manager Igor Stimac offered to resign after the match despite the fact his team are in the play-offs for a place in Brazil next year.
“Hopefully we’ve made the nation happy tonight,” Strachan said. “It was a nice way to finish the week. The week has been hopefully enjoyable but hard work, so when you put that kind of hard work in it’s always nice to get a performance and a win.
“Big difference from the first game, against Wales,” he continued, referring to his competitive debut as manager earlier this year, when Scotland were beaten at Hampden. “The players have gradually turned it round and they can be really proud of themselves.
“It’s a confidence thing. You’ve got to dig out things – results, performances, take a few knocks, and eventually it gets better.
“It grows within the crowd as well, and the players feel that. If the whole stadium becomes more confident because of the way we go about our job, it makes us all feel better.
“[Snodgrass] did well, in an unusual role for him,” Strachan added, referring to the Norwich City player’s position just behind lone striker Naismith. “We were short of attacking bodies and strength in forward positions, and he did okay. He had a wonderful goal and he hit the post and he did good things.
“His mate up front was terrific: Naismith. Everything about him. He’s not the world’s greatest player, but you’re talking about a big heart. He allows other players to play in our team – makes them better.
“Different wee things he does – he wins headers, he takes fouls. And he works incredibly hard, so it was good to see him scoring a goal.”
The goal came from a rebound from a Barry Bannan penalty, saved by Stipe Pletikosa. “Who allowed him to take that penalty?” Strachan joked. “Good goal.”
Snodgrass’s goal celebration referred to the birth of his daughter Leonie last week – he rushed to rejoin the squad on Sunday just 48 hours before kick-off, and he thanked his team-mates for their patience. “It was nice to cap it off because it has been quite a stressful week,” Snodgrass said.
“I didn’t think I was going to get here and I didn’t train as much as everyone else leading up to the game. The boys were doing double training sessions and I missed a few sessions so I wasn’t completely up to speed with things.
“I would like to thank the boys for being patient with me turning up a wee bit later, but obviously the birth of my daughter is the most important thing, and the main aim was to come up here and try and help the team to get three points.”
Snodgrass described his two goals in wins over Croatia as “pay back” for Strachan, after he gave away a penalty and picked up a red card in the manager’s first competitive game in charge against Wales.
The subsequent 2-1 defeat all but eliminated Scotland from the qualifying equation. “I have picked up silly bookings in areas where I should be a more experienced and switched on,” he said.
“That has stopped me kicking on in my Scotland career. But that is me on three goals for the international side and I believe that I could have added a few more appearances but what’s stopped me is silly bookings.”
The Scotland player might have had a second shortly after his opening goal but the diving goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa tipped his shot against the post. “I did everything you get taught to do – get it across the keeper. But it wasn’t to be.
“It could have been the second for me, but winning was most important and we didn’t worry it would be a turning point. In all honesty, we were talking at half-time about maybe taking two or three off Croatia. That’s what we did and there is that belief. Long may it continue.” Asked if Snodgrass had felt able to rejoin the squad in time to take part last night, Strachan added: “I think he did all the work.”
The manager appeared surprised when told that Stimac had tendered his resignation, but declined to make a specific comment on the news other than to say he would have a chat with his Croatian counterpart after his media duties were done. “He’s a lovely man, terrific fellow,” he added.
Speaking before Strachan, Stimac explained that he had offered his resignation – “free of charge” to Davor Suker – but that he would prefer to carry on to finish the job, which appeared to mean remaining in charge at least until after next month’s play-offs.
“I offered my mandate to the president of the Croatian Football Federation, because of the latest results of our team [and] because of everything surrounding us.
“Never mind that we qualified for the play-offs, I want to show a certain morale, certain responsibility.
“So if anybody doesn’t believe in my work in the Croatian Football Federation, I want to give them the chance to change something now. I offered my resignation.”
Stimac believes that a section of the Croatian support, and possibly some officials too, will never be happy with what he achieves. Even the team’s victories, he said, had been criticised as fortunate, or not convincing enough.
Turning to Scotland, he praised Strachan for the impact he had made since taking over from Craig Levein. “Gordon is the right man at the right place and he will improve your game so much that you will be proud of it once again,” he said.