Gordon Strachan used to have to think twice before going to the cinema and even had reason to look over his shoulder when filling up his car with petrol. But that was in his previous life as a Celtic manager.
Now he is relishing the sense that everyone is on his side ahead of tonight’s Group D qualifier with Republic of Ireland, back in a stadium he, along with certain others, is so familiar with.
Strachan yesterday described sensing the anticipation gripping the nation and noted the sense of unity on a rare excursion out of the Scotland training base in Renfrewshire. He went to the cinema. Alone? “No, with McGhee.”
With the build-up intensifying Strachan and Mark McGhee, his assistant, decided to go and watch the new Christopher Nolan epic Interstellar. “I went out yesterday to the cinema and as I walked to the cinema I met a lot of people,” Strachan reported. “That is when the excitement started.”
“There is always pressure in every job that you get and in this one you feel as if you are letting down a nation if you don’t do well,” he added, while making the point that going out is currently a pleasure. “But so far, through their performances, we have made them proud.”
Given that Interstellar is set in space, Strachan chose wisely if he wished to be transported to a place with no atmosphere ahead of tonight’s destination, where the opposite will be true. He was still left dazed by the experience after being treated to whispers in his ear, McGhee-style. “He was explaining the Theory of Relativity and sound and ageing and all the rest of it,” he said. “My head was buzzing by the time I got back here.”
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Strachan is preparing for another unknown tonight. Even with experienced professionals, he acknowledged that a manager is able to guarantee only so much. After returning from the cinema, he and McGhee played Scrabble while putting down the final pieces in tonight’s team.
“There was plenty of time in between him putting his tiles down,” quipped Strachan, who knows the plans they have worked on this week in training risk being rendered useless amid the white heat of tonight’s battle, one he has already described as a “British-style derby battle”.
While it is his job to try and ensure that Scotland keep 11 players on the park, there are only so many warnings he can give. Last week Strachan recalled, on the eve of his first Old Firm derby as Celtic manager, stressing to the players how they must keep their emotions in check. He reflected that Alan Thompson was duly red carded after 23 minutes and then Neil Lennon was sent off at the final whistle, following a 3-1 defeat. His words of caution had counted for little.
Responsibility lies with the players as well but this could be hard to remember during a game Strachan yesterday acknowledged will be played with a “wee bit more pace” than a normal international fixture. Martin O’Neill, the Ireland manager, returned to Celtic Park last night and sought to relay the same message to his players.
“We’ll have a better chance with 11 players on the park,” he said.
Ireland’s build-up has been complicated by Roy Keane, O’Neill’s assistant, becoming involved in an altercation with a supporter at the team hotel, outside Dublin. There is an intensity surrounding this fixture that is hard to ignore. “The coaches set the standard,” said Strachan. “I detach myself from the madness that surrounds it – it is a great madness for everyone bar the players.”
The manager noted that all the major games in the group to date that have not ended in draws have been settled by a single goal. The same could well be true again tonight. While Scotland have found the net in each of their three qualifying games thus far, Graeme Souness made the point earlier this week that goalscoring remains his greatest concern.
The former Scotland skipper acknowledged the improvement under Strachan, but mentioned the absence of a regular goalscorer. Steven Fletcher, Strachan’s current favoured starter in attack, has scored only once in 17 appearances – and that was five years ago, under George Burley.
“I can see where Graeme is coming from,” said Strachan. “But I watched Derby play Wolves at the weekend and Chris Martin is the main striker. It was 5-0 yet the main goal- getter didn’t score. However, he was involved in everything.
“The days of the out-and-out goal=getter might not be there. It’s what you can do for the group. More important than the striker might be the three men behind the striker. Look at Chelsea – Diego Costa holds onto the ball and Drogba has been brought back not necessarily to score goals but to make sure he’s there when the other guys are playing.”
“The days of Lineker and Rush and things like that, of balls getting crossed in with two strikers going in, that has gone now,” he added.
Strachan also noted that strikers are now players who are there to “maybe score 12 goals a season, but also make sure the three behind get 40”.
He added: “The task for a striker is to hold the ball up and create space. They are also there to assist those breaking through from behind.
“He [Fletcher] never scored against Poland, but he made that lovely pass [for the first goal]. Years ago, when you had an out-and-out striker, he couldn’t turn and play the ball like he did. You have to be more rounded now. It would be great if you had out-and-out strikers, out-and- out goalscorers, like Messi or Ronaldo. But we don’t have one of them.”
What Scotland have is a group of players desperate to hand the supporters a win that would be a perfect way to approach Tuesday’s friendly against England, which Strachan admitted yesterday was very much on “the back burner”.
Victory would also maintain hopes Scotland can themselves go interstellar – by qualifying for France 2016.
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