AFTER leading Scotland to a 1-0 victory in Croatia last night, Gordon Strachan said he felt drained but was simply glad “to have made the country happy”.
The Scotland manager and his players certainly did this, courtesy of Robert Snodgrass’ 26th minute goal. Without a win in their last seven competitive matches, and on the back of a first-ever run of four consecutive competitive defeats, Scotland gave their long-suffering supporters a reason to sing long into the Zagreb night.
It is only the second time that Croatia have suffered a defeat in the capital city in a competitive game. Scotland have emulated what England managed to do here in 2008, and Strachan was determined for his players to be given the respect he felt they deserved.
The chant of “One Gordon Strachan” drifted across the mostly empty stadium, scene of one of Scotland’s greatest results in years. The manager had taken his press conference outside the designated room after being interrupted by a Croatian journalist one too many times.
“Oi, it’s not your press conference it’s mine,” he told the reporter in question. “It’s not often we get a result like this, so calm down, all right?”
Later, Strachan reflected on what the result meant to a nation. “We got the response in training and we got a response tonight,” he said. “I really feel pleased for everyone that got on the plane, who have travelled, who are watching [at home],” he said. “That’s what you do not get at a club. With your national side the group of us have made the country happy.”
He admitted that it had been “90 per cent certain that we were not going to win”. However, from almost the very start Scotland impressed with their composure on the ball. Both Grant Hanley and Russell Martin, starting a game together at centre-half for the first time, were immense, and Strachan paid tribute to their efforts afterwards, in his own inimitable style. “The partnership at centre-half was not bad,” he said.
Of Martin, who is mostly used at full back by Norwich City, he added: “I phoned him about four weeks ago at Norwich and I said get yourself ready for centre-half, because you are going to be centre-half here. He knew a month ago he was going to play. He did well, and his mate beside him did all right.”
“I wanted a performance,” he added. “Listen it was 90 per cent that we were not going to win. I have to say, as the game progressed, I thought if we can actually win the ball back and put three or four passes together we can get up the other end.
“The lack of fitness in some players was a worry, some have not played for a month, and some are not getting regular games for their club. I thought: ‘If we can pass the ball better, we can score more goals here’.”
Asked what he said to his players before the match started, he said: “You need to keep that to yourself.” He was happy to reveal what he said to them afterwards, however. “They were heroic in terms of defence, but also heroic in terms of holding the ball up. Wee Shaun [Maloney] was doing that. And James McArthur and James Morrison in midfield, and [Steven] Naismith and [Craig] Conway came on and did well. And that is as good as I have seen Alan Hutton.”
Leigh Griffiths, who made his competitive debut for Scotland in the lone striker’s position, produced a tireless display, against a powerful Croatian rearguard, before being replaced after just over an hour by Jordan Rhodes,
“Leigh Griffiths said he has never come across big guys like that; it was night and day [to what he is used to],” said Strachan. “That is something he needs to learn. You can’t get too close to these guys, they just shove you off the ball.”
Strachan admitted the display was not faultless.
“It is a great result, and we must enjoy it,” he said. “But when I look at it from a coach’s point of view, there are few things I want to brush up on.”
The win means Scotland have avoided the doomsday scenario of dropping into pot 5 ahead of the next qualifying campaign. “I don’t know, I don’t think about it too much,” said Strachan, when asked for his thoughts on this ‘achievement’. “I know Stewart [Regan] keeps talking about it,” he added, with reference to the Scottish Football Association chief executive.
“You play for your country for pride not money, and you give people pride,” he added.
“Listen, it makes us happy for a while, and makes us feel good about ourselves,” he said. “Sometimes we take it badly. McArthur and Snodgrass took it badly after the Wales defeat, so hopefully at the next game there is a spring in their step.”
The next game just happens to be a trip to Wembley in August, to face England. “Wembley?” said Strachan. “I just want to get over this first. I am drained now.”
Snodgrass was beaming at full-time. “We came here believing we could get something,” said the matchwinner. “There was loads of pride at stake, the manager gave a few boys a chance and we’re delighted with the result. There was loads of cheap talk before the game from Croatia and we used that as motivation.”