WHEN he was unveiled as Scotland manager in January, Gordon Strachan’s stated intention was to win games. That is what they do at Manchester United, and that, he added, is what he said he wanted to do with Scotland.
The comment was greeted with a degree of scepticism. After all, winning games was the main problem for his predecessor. Just three wins in 12 competitive games meant that Craig Levein’s position became untenable.
With five victories in ten matches in his ten-month stint as manager, Strachan has exceeded expectations. That three of these wins came in qualifiers and two were against a team ranked in the Fifa top ten means Strachan can reflect with some satisfaction on the work he and assistants Mark McGhee and Stuart McCall have carried out at the end of their first year together.
“Well, I’m still in a job,” quipped Strachan yesterday in typical fashion, following the welcome if undeserved victory against Norway that applies a full stop at the end of the manager’s first calendar year in charge.
“That’s an achievement in your first year in management.”
“I am getting more pleased the longer it has gone on, and after a poor start which affected people and tested your mentality,” he added. “So, it’s good to still be here and to pick up another victory.”
No-one is saying that Strachan has cracked it. Not yet, at least. Indeed, Tuesday night’s performance contained some worrying signs that Scotland were in danger of going backwards again following the confident strides taken in recent months. It was pleasing that Strachan himself was as alert to this as anyone – he made little attempt to apply any sugar coating to the win save to praise his side’s battling qualities. He described it as a “poor show” and the experiment of playing just three midfielders is likely to have been put back into cold storage from the evidence available on a freezing night in Molde. The players were left too isolated and, not until Barry Bannan arrived to help shore up the right side of midfield did Scotland manage to become a little more stable, although they were still gifting Norway plenty of opportunities from which to score. The re-emergence of Bannan, indeed, has been one of Strachan’s successes.
It was an at times chastening evening in the snow-bound town on the edge of the Moldfjorden where Scotland had chosen to bring down the curtain on a year which comprised ten internationals. A 1-0 win did not always bring comfort to Strachan.
“I wouldn’t want to go through that again – that’s not what I’m aiming for,” he said. “We can take comfort from one or two things but we want to be better than that. And we can play better than that if we learn the lessons [from it].”
The 32-year-old Gordon Greer has been a welcome addition to the team and he offers another option in the middle of defence. Russell Martin, who started beside him in Norway, is perhaps the first choice at centre half and is another player who has blossomed under Strachan.
“They were up against an old-fashioned system with two strikers up front,” said Strachan. “People say you can’t play that way but it depends how good the two strikers are and they did well. They made us run into corners and stretched the game but Russell and Gordon did alright.”
“It keeps us going now for another three and a bit months,” he added. “You can’t wait to get them back and say: ‘Listen, last time, this is what we could have done better’.”
But a win is a win. And finding the winning formula is what Strachan has been hired to do. Otherwise there is simply no prospect of what is his primary goal. Qualification for Euro 2016. The frustration is that Scotland must now wait until the Autumn to begin engaging with this challenge. How critical is the need to get off to a good start then – a full year after their last competitive match – is spelled out by the dreadful opening endured by Scotland in the last qualifying campaign.
The dropping of four points in the two opening games saw Levein’s side put pressure on themselves from the outset. The aim is to at least maintain the steady rate of improvement that has been discernible this year and then be able to hit the road running later next year.
Sometimes a lot can be gauged from watching the players interacting at the baggage carousel on the return home from a match. Even though the flight had been delayed due to two de-icing operations, the players remained in good spirits as they milled about the airport in Norway and then Glasgow, in the early hours of yesterday morning.
Strachan shook each player by the hand as he bid them a fond farewell, although he did reveal that they had a “quiet word” in the dressing-room after the below-par performance in north-west Norway.
Even Kris Boyd, who didn’t in the end participate in the match, looked content to be part of a group that will not now meet up again until March, when a friendly date is pencilled in. Following that, there is a double-header slated for May, possibly in the United States. It is expected, that there will be a few teams wishing to play games in that part of the world prior to the World Cup finals.
When asked to look back on his reign so far, Strachan agreed that the home defeat against Wales in March had been the “low point”. He has since described the opening half an hour as being the worst a team has ever played under him. “I think I had about a 30-minute sleep that night,” he said, before summing up the improvement in fortunes since then. “I’m getting better sleeps at the moment.”