FOR perhaps too long, Scotland’s international footballers have been characterised as bravehearts. It is an image which has done nothing to aid their efforts to end the country’s long exile from a major tournament finals.
But, as the road to Euro 2016 opens up enticingly for Gordon Strachan’s squad, one of his key players believes it is their newly acquired cool heads which will be pivotal in taking them all the way to France next year.
Steven Naismith, a veteran of four unsuccessful qualifying campaigns with Scotland, insists the team’s reaction to Gibraltar’s shock equaliser during Sunday’s Group D encounter at Hampden was indicative of a more assured mindset which he says Strachan has instilled.
“We kept our nerve and I think that shows how far we have come on,” said Naismith. “The mentality has changed a bit and no-one is panicking or getting worried.
“Even when we lost the goal to Gibraltar, it didn’t really faze us. We continued doing the stuff that we had planned to do beforehand.
“There was plenty of time left and we have good players, so it was only a matter of time before we created more chances and, luckily for us, we took them.
“The pressure was on us to deliver but we were confident and I think that showed with the way we played overall.”
Scotland’s 6-1 victory over the group minnows, coupled with the Republic of Ireland’s 1-1 draw at home to Poland later in the evening, set Strachan’s squad up promisingly for their next qualifier against the Irish in Dublin on 13 June.
Naismith is bullish about the prospects of further success against Martin O’Neill’s side, having taken great confidence from Scotland’s 1-0 win when the teams met at Celtic Park in November.
“It would be a big step if we could win in Dublin and we believe we can do it,” added the 28-year-old Everton forward.
“We’ll go into the game with a gameplan, but we showed in the first game we were the better team and we deserved to win. So I don’t see why it needs to be any different in Dublin.
“With them being at home, they might be forced to come at us a bit more and not sit as defensively, which might suit us.
“It’s going to be a really tough game and we’re going to have to be at our best, but we have the players here to win those games.
“The next three games will have a big bearing on the final outcome in this group, but I say all the time the squad is competitive and we’ll be up for it.
“It’s like any qualification campaign. The second-half and going into the last quarter is going to be the business end and you just have to make sure you are in a good position going into that period and force the other teams to maybe change their systems because they need to get something.
“We are in a fantastic position in the group now and I don’t think we have to be bothered with other teams’ results.
“After every round, because it’s such a tight group, you’ll look at the table, the other results and see what has to be done. But if you concentrate on yourselves, win your home games and take points away from home, you’ll not be too far away. That’s what we’ll be doing.”
Naismith scored his second goal of the current campaign in the romp against Gibraltar, complementing Steven Fletcher’s hat-trick and Shaun Maloney’s double. It was his fifth Scotland goal in total, a return from his 36 caps so far which he admits is a disappointment.
“I haven’t really scored enough goals for Scotland so any one I get is good,” added Naismith. “It was a game you go into feeling like you could get a goal and it was great for me personally.
“The hat-trick was good for Steven. He’ll be delighted, as any player would be, to score a hat-trick. The last one for Scotland was in the 1960s, so it’s fantastic for Fletch. It’ll keep him ticking over.”
Naismith’s domestic season will end with Everton’s final English Premier League fixture on 24 May, three weeks before the crucial assignment at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. The lay-off will be much longer for Scotland’s English Championship players, some of whom will end their club campaigns on 2 May.
An extended international training camp and a yet-to-be-confirmed friendly fixture will help Scotland bridge the gap.
“I don’t think the gap at the end of the season is that big a problem,” said Naismith. “It’ll be a good period for the boys to recover slightly and a we’ll have a good build up and preparation.
“The manager has set up the trip. It’s a bit longer than normal, but it’ll make sure everyone is at the level for the games.
“The boys are professional and we know what’s at stake here. We know the condition we should be turning up in and what we should be doing when we get together.
“I’ll keep ticking over. I might have a couple of days because with the amount of games you are playing, a few days off doesn’t make that much difference and it’s good to recharge batteries.
“But I’ll continue to do a bit of work before rejoining the group.”