IT IS a horror movie in which Gordon Strachan has been a central character before. He has absolutely no desire to reprise the role. We are talking about the gruesome prospect of Scotland finishing bottom of their qualifying group for a major tournament.
It is a scenario which has played out just once before in the national team’s history, when they were cast adrift at the foot of their 1984 European Championship qualifying section.
Strachan played in all but one of Scotland’s fixtures in that ill-starred campaign and unless he can fashion at least one victory from the two remaining games of the dismal 2014 World Cup series, starting against Macedonia in Skopje tonight, he could find himself at the helm when history repeats itself.
“It scares me to think that it could happen,” admitted Strachan at the Scotland team’s hotel on the banks of the Vardar River.
“I wouldn’t like it. I just wouldn’t like it. I wouldn’t enjoy that, so we have to do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen. If it does happen, I’ll tell you how it feels then. But I don’t want to think about it.”
It might not even be any consolation to Strachan that he would be in good company should the worst happen, Scotland having been under the guidance of the great Jock Stein when they managed just one victory in that Euro 84 group and finished bottom behind Belgium, Switzerland and East Germany.
“I remember losing 2-1 to East Germany in the last game of the group,” added Strachan. “It was a horrible, horrible night [in Halle]. A cold, cold place. Nothing much happened in the game at all, although for some reason I do remember Eamonn Bannon scoring our goal.
“In the away game against Belgium, Kenny Dalglish scored two cracking goals but we lost 3-2. I also remember Charlie Nicholas scoring a brilliant goal against Switzerland when we came back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with them at Hampden.
“When you get older you only remember the good games, you forget all the rubbish. But I seem to remember the rubbish more than the good ones.
“But that was back when there were only four teams in the group. It was easier to qualify for World Cups back then than it was the European Championships. In the World Cup group you really had a head-to-head with one right good side and if you beat them that was you through. But it’s different now. The standard of the game has improved all over the place.”
Back in 1984, of course, finishing bottom of that group was no more than a blip for Scotland who were in the midst of a run of five successive World Cup finals appearances, also adding two trips to the European Championship finals in the 1990s.
In attempting to end the country’s painful absence from the business end of a major tournament, which will now stretch to at least 18 years, Strachan’s sights are firmly focused on taking some positive momentum into the Euro 2016 qualifiers which begin in 12 months. For all of the encouragement provided by June’s unexpected 1-0 win over Croatia in Zagreb and the often admirable display in losing 3-2 to England at Wembley last month, Strachan knows any feelgood factor is fragile. As pleased as he was by aspects of Friday night’s 2-0 defeat by an outstanding Belgian side at Hampden, the manager knows how damaging another loss tonight could be.
“You need to win games,” he said. “We get fed up talking about progress. There comes a point when you have to start winning games and looking like you’re going to win games.
“We had progress against Croatia, progress against England, and it kind of stalled a bit in the Belgium game.
“But if you look at it you realise five or six players did really well on the night.
“I’m gauging things all the time. I’m now starting to understand the players better, what they can and can’t do. And, all the time, you’re adding to the group that you’ll probably have for next year. We’ve definitely done that over the last three games.
“It’s about pride. I’ve played in games and been beaten and I’ve walked off and gone ‘well that’s as good as I can do and we should have won that’ and I’ve been in a game when we’ve won but been rotten. When we’ve got a win but we’ve known fine well that we haven’t performed, that’s kind of embarrassing. That’s not what you want. You can never tell your emotions until you put the whole thing together.
“When you have quieter moments you look ahead to next year and the next campaign. But right at this moment, you’re in the front line. All you think about is the game. Then when it’s finished, you assess it.
“How did we play? Who was good? Who added to the squad? Who was good when they were left out? Who caused problems when they were left out? Who works well in the group? Who is an individual? All these kind of things.
“Whatever job I’ve had, it might have been a bit rocky to start with. That happens. You deal with that, as long as you get there in the end. There’s a point where you’re looking to keep progressing. But you’ve got to take a few knocks.”
Strachan is desperate to avoid sustaining one of those knocks in a country which celebrated its Independence Day holiday yesterday, with the locals consumed by their beloved basketball team’s elimination from the European Championships at the hands of Latvia which was shown on giant screens around Skopje city centre.
There is nothing at stake in the Philip II Arena tonight in terms of further progress in the World Cup, but avoiding that dreaded wooden spoon should be motivation enough for Strachan and his players.
GORAN PANDEV v SCOTT BROWN
Pandev, who is Macedonia’s record goalscorer with 26 strikes, needs no introduction to the Scotland team after he pulled the strings in the 1-1 draw in Glasgow earlier in the campaign. Brown will need to watch for the Napoli playmaker dropping into space between Scotland’s defence and midfield. But the Celtic captain has made a good start to the season following an injury-affected campaign last term and the central midfield partnership he formed with Charlie Mulgrew against Belgium on Friday was the most positive feature of Scotland’s performance.
IVAN TRICKOVSKI v STEVEN WHITTAKER
Trickovski reacted quickly to finish smartly against Wales in Macedonia’s 2-1 win on Friday and set up his team’s goal at Hampden following a neat one-two after a short corner. The wide player, who is on loan at Waasland-Beveren from Club Brugge, is comfortable with both feet and is sure to prove a difficult opponent on the right flank if Whittaker continues at left-back. The Norwich player’s error led to Belgium’s first goal on Friday and he was caught on his inside for England’s opener last month as he fills in out of position.
NIKOLCE NOVESKI v STEVEN NAISMITH
Centre-back Noveski scored in the 1-1 draw at Hampden and the imposing 34-year-old, who plays in the Bundesliga with Mainz, will be tasked with shackling Scotland’s lone striker. Naismith appears to be in Strachan’s thoughts to fulfil the role of leading the line.