Having conceded that the home defeat by Wales in March was a “body blow” that affected morale for the trip to Serbia four days later, Stuart McCall yesterday sought to accentuate the positives ahead of Friday night’s return to World Cup qualifying action against Croatia.
Scotland are seeking to avoid a third consecutive competitive defeat under Gordon Strachan, and McCall, the new manager’s assistant coach, has highlighted the number of young players in the squad, following several high-profile call-offs for the Group A fixture.
At the end of a long season, McCall was eager to keep things as upbeat as possible yesterday between double training sessions at the team’s headquarters at Mar Hall in Renfrewshire. “I think we’ve six under-21 kids who’ve come in and joined the group and they’ll be better for being about the place and feeling part of it,” he said. “We’ve got talented boys – [Gary] Mackay-Steven, [Stuart] Armstrong, [Leigh] Griffiths has looked sharp, Tony Watt’s come in.”
Griffiths, in particular, impressed yesterday morning in training reported McCall, as did Barry Bannan – one of the late additions to the squad. Scotland survived an early scare yesterday after centre-half Grant Hanley limped from the training field.
According to McCall, the Blackburn Rovers player, who has just signed a new five-year contract with his club, “rolled his ankle”. However, it is not thought to have put any serious question over his involvement on Friday – which is a rare piece of good news as Scotland prepare to head to Zagreb, amid what have become the standard low expectations.
As with other away fixtures against Belgium and even
Serbia, there is a sense that mere respectability might be a sufficient outcome. Croatia are currently second on goal difference to Belgium in a group propped up by Scotland, who so far have earned only two points – both collected when Craig Levein was still manager.
Hanley, it seems, will be ready to face a Croatia strike force that will include Mario Mandzukic, the Champions League-winning Bayern Munich centre forward. “The pitch is really good but it’s dry and there are no sprinklers,” said McCall of the training facilities at Mar Hall. “It’s a bit sticky. He [Hanley] will be fine to train,” added McCall, who noted that the conditions were a change to the last time they met up, when they were clearing snow off the pitch to train.
Brighton & Hove Albion defender Gordon Greer, meanwhile, arrived last night after recovering from tonsillitis, as did Alan Hutton, who was in action at the weekend as his Real Mallorca side were relegated from La Liga, despite beating Real Valladolid 4-2. Wigan Athletic’s Shaun Maloney is also due to
return to training this morning.
McCall acknowledged that it was likely to prove a tough experience for a relatively inexperienced side. “Obviously it’s a lot to ask the majority of them in such a tough place,” he said. “But we’ve just got to try between now and Friday to get the positives, work with the players that are going to be part of the squad going forward. We can’t look on it as doom and gloom, we’ve got to be as bright and positive as we can. I was fortunate to play for Scotland that went to tough places.
“But as an individual you’ve just got to be the best you can be. Why can’t Allan McGregor have the best game he’s ever had in a Scotland shirt? But we need a lot of them to play at their maximum. It’s going to be a chance for a few players, one or two will be making their debuts, and maybe a couple that have not played many times. It’s down to them to be the best they can be and come back with a positive result. There’s no getting about it, it’s going to be a tough night.” McCall would not be drawn on the news that Kris Commons was currently on a trip with some Celtic team-mates to Las Vegas, having announced his retirement from the international team for “family reasons” only last week.
“I have not been in anyone’s company’s who’s mentioned it,” he said, possibly a little disingenuously. “I don’t like to compare our eras but there were guys in our day that never turned up if they weren’t playing,” he added. “You can’t get in people’s heads.
“For a while David Robertson [the Rangers full-back] travelled everywhere in the days when there was a squad of 20,” he added. “Everybody gets stripped now whereas then there
were seven subs and usually
two in the stand and he was usually the one in the stand, for a year. So you could part understand it when he said, ‘If I’m not going to be involved, what’s the point?’
“We’ve got to concentrate on the boys who are here,” added McCall. “There’s no greater honour than pulling a shirt on and playing for Scotland. But the greatest honour is to play and win games. We want to try and get back to that.”
Some hope has been gleaned from reports that Croatia have been letting their hair down over the weekend. Photographs have emerged of manager Igor Stimac enjoying a few drinks with his players. As expected, McCall refused to read too much into either this or comments from the Croatians’ camp that seemed to suggest they were treating the match as a guaranteed opportunity to earn three points.
However, he did insist that Scotland had to concentrate on playing to their potential while at the same time hoping Croatia might perform some way below their optimum level, and if
this is as a result of the opposition over-indulging, then so much the better. “We can
only focus on what we can do,” he said.