HE’S a changing man, with a squad that changes, players who vie for selection and, most pertinently as far as the Tartan Army will be concerned, ambitions that have altered.
“I can see us qualifying for the European Championships,” Gordon Strachan now states, looking ahead to the 2016 tournament. “That’s what I want to do.”
He wasn’t always so convinced. As his reign as Scotland manager got under way, Strachan admitted he had real doubts about the nation’s ability to qualify for a major championships any time soon. Despite success in his first game, the positivity derived from that friendly win over Estonia at Pittodrie vanished as he squirmed his way through the opening period of his first competitive match, which Wales won 2-1 at Hampden.
“I’ve got to say that’s the worst 25 minutes I have ever been involved in in my footballing career. We watched a video of it afterwards with all the mistakes. It gets worse and worse. There’s people trying stepovers and falling on their face. It really was as bad as it gets. Then, the next day, because it was snowing, me, Mark [McGhee] and Stuart [McCall] had to go and clear snow with shovels to get 40 yards by 40 yards, to train on. I thought, ‘it doesn’t get any worse than this. I have never slept, I am shovelling snow round here for players who can’t pass the ball to each other on grass, what I am doing? I could be sitting in a studio now, slaughtering people’.”
Yet, three games and less than six months since that low point, he now believes he can steer the national side to the European Championship in France, the scene of Scotland’s last involvement at a major event way back in 1998. “I do, I really do. We have got to do more with the ball but I think there is only a certain amount we can do at the moment with where we are now in level of actual ability.”
Taking that into consideration was the defining moment. Strachan says he has deconstructed matters, although he maintains it wasn’t particularly complicated initially. “But everything is complicated if you can’t pass the ball to each other. I think when I first got in, I thought ‘let’s do it that way’ but that was only with a certain number of players. We have kind of simplified it now because, when we do lose a few players, it will be easier because there are people who you will find difficult to replace, that’s for sure.”
Going into the latest double header, at home to Belgium on Friday and then away to Macedonia a week on Tuesday, Strachan will have to find a way to fill the attacking void left by Kenny Miller and exacerbated by the fact that Steven Fletcher is not quite ready for a recall. “Unfortunately the three lads we have got there are not plying their trade in the top division. Belgium have [Romelu] Lukaku at Chelsea, [Aston Villa’s Christian] Benteke is as good as anyone just now, but we will work our way round that. There was never any chance of us bringing Steven back. I spoke to him a wee while back and September was too early for him.
“They are all different players and you can’t make them into Kenny, just like you couldn’t make Kenny into Kenny Dalglish or Duncan Ferguson. You make the best of what we have got. It is up to these three guys but twice now I have picked a team at the beginning of the week and changed it because of what I have seen at training. At the Croatia and England games I have changed it just using my eyes and gut feeling of what I have seen at training. So the guys know fine well when you come along to training, or should do now, that the performances can get them a game.”
It will be the same with the goalkeeping berth as first choice Allan McGregor is suspended against Belgium. Matt Gilks is in contention but Cardiff City’s David Marshall appears to have the place to lose. “He would probably be the favourite,” said Strachan. “Again, being in the Premier League helps him because you have to be better there but, again, you let your eyes decide.”
But, while the personnel requires a reshuffle, the short-term targets remain unchanged. “I want to win the next two games. That is really all that counts. But it will be a test because we are playing a top, top side. I watched Belgium a couple of times this week and they are big strong side, and then we go to Macedonia.”
Having gone to Croatia and won and then produced a laudable performance at Wembley which was blighted, according to Strachan, only by a lack of concentration there is a renewed level of cautious expectancy.
“We will have to change a wee bit, the onus is on us at home. When you are away from home the game comes to you but, when you play here, you have to take the game to the opposition. We might not be able to do it as much as we think we should because the opposition is so good but you have to build on what we have in terms of shape and when we’ve not got the ball. We have put a lot of work in on when we get the ball but this week we will have to do even more – what you can’t do is just throw in balls left, right and centre into the box because they are giants. In saying that [Vincent] Kompany is out and so is [Thomas] Vermaelen. It still has to be really thoughtful how we get through them.
“[Eden] Hazard is the smallest, about 5ft 9in, but what a power he has. [Dries] Mertens is on and off, you have the boy [Kevin] De Bruyne at Chelsea and [Kevin] Mirallas at Everton. They are good players. Sometimes just a group of players can come together at the same time.”
On Friday, they will come together at Hampden. A few months ago that might have seen Strachan watching through splayed fingers but opinions change. His expectations have changed too.