SCOTLAND’S headquarters at Mar Hall wasn’t so much an inner-sanctum yesterday morning as an institution for the thoroughly bewildered.
Gordon Strachan had slept for just three hours. Nothing unusual there, he said. On nights like Friday you don’t get much rest, you don’t get much of anything but flashbacks and nagging thoughts about what went wrong. Thoughts, but no answers for some of the things that happened in the game against Wales, particularly early in the game, just about defied analysis.
“There’s a disappointment stage you have to go through,” he said, “and there’s no tablet you can take that will help you to get over it. I had to ask the doctor if there was a tablet because if there was I would like it right now. But there isn’t. You have to suffer. It’s part of the deal.”
Here we are, one competitive game into his reign and this Scotland job is already taking bites out of him the way it bit, chewed and spat out so many of his predecessors. On Tuesday evening in Serbia his team will be playing to avoid a place in the kind of history book that no footballer would ever want to appear. Scotland have now lost three qualifying games in succession but never in its history has the nation lost four in a row. That’s the prize on offer this week; the grim battle to avoid a humiliation of the ages.
There will be changes, but maybe not as many as some would wish. You could rip out the entire back four but there is no cavalry here, no handy solutions waiting in the shadows. Russell Martin of Norwich may come in, but the options are paper thin back there. There might be a recall for Kris Commons in midfield and surely a start for Jordan Rhodes in the absence of Steven Fletcher and the doubts surrounding the knee injury that Kenny Miller is toiling with.
Beyond that? It’s hope rather than expectation. It took one game – actually, it took about 15 minutes – for all the feelgood to be removed from Strachan’s reign and be replaced with the kind of reality we hoped we’d left behind when Craig Levein made way for a canny manager with a track record at Celtic of improving players and making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. It may happen yet, but this is a long road ahead.
“At the moment, it’s a horrible time to speak to you because I’m not 100 per cent bang on,” said Strachan. “I’m still having to suffer and it’s hard to talk when you’re suffering. If you come and see me tomorrow the world will be a nice place again. You have a vision of the game but sometimes you have to look at it again to make sure you’re right in your assumptions. One thing you have to do is analyse yourself first. What did I do? Did I give them too much information? Or too little? The only problem is that it will be September before you can put this right again at home. We’ve got an away game now.”
Every time Strachan, pictured right, was asked about the task ahead in Serbia he mentioned the size of the team that awaits them over there. Big men, he said. Huge men, he stressed, Big, huge men, just in case we missed the point. If he calls anybody into the squad – another striker in case Miller doesn’t travel – the chances are that it is going to have to be somebody who can handle himself physically. Scotland want – and probably need – the devil of Leigh Griffiths but it didn’t sound as if Griffiths was who Strachan had in mind – if he had anybody in mind.
His mind, after all, was such a scramble that it was hard to know if any fully-formed thoughts about Serbia existed in there. Most of what he spoke of was Wales and the frustration of it all.
“Of all the scenarios I had in my mind I never envisaged that one,” he said of Scotland’s hopeless inability to pass the ball in the opening spell. “There were passes that were quite strange. What was the reason for that? Did we try to pass too much? Did players take it to heart too much that we must pass, pass, pass? There has to be common sense in our passing. After 20 minutes we changed it and that helped a wee bit.
“I don’t know if they couldn’t handle the occasion or just tried too hard to impress a new manager, I really don’t know. I’ll need to look into that, but whether I ever get the answer... I know I can work out formations and ways to play but you still have to have the ability to pass the ball. When you sit down and think about how the game might go you can’t see that happening. There must have been five or six of these type passes. I’ll have to look at the part I played in it. Did I put too much pressure on the players to play? Would it have been more beneficial to be more straightforward in the first ten to 15 minutes? We’ll look at that.”
The confusion on the manager’s face yesterday was like a mirror image of Levein’s demeanour at times, only without the self-deluding defiance that typified Levein’s era. He returned to the state of Scotland’s passing, complimenting Grant Hanley for having the strength of character to recover from his own wayward ball to Gareth Bale early in the match.
“He did well after that pass – or whatever it was. I don’t know where that one came from. Whatever scenarios you have in your head before the game you cannot see passes like that. Charlie [Mulgrew] had one, Gary Caldwell had one. As you’re lying in your bed the night before you think of all the things that can go wrong but you couldn’t see that happening. You also couldn’t see Steven Fletcher jumping in the air and getting injured. How many times has he jumped in the air this year and been all right?
“But we got over that and we’re away and I was comfortable at 1-0. I was happy. Craig Bellamy was going and playing in the midfield, which was fine because that’s what we wanted. We wanted him and Bale out searching for the ball away from the danger area. I thought we’d score a second goal and go on to win.”
Strachan reckoned without Scotland’s fragile confidence, their tendency to get anxious in defence of a lead, their propensity for making colossal errors. A winning position on Friday; lost. A winning position against Wales in October; lost again. A winning position against the Czech Republic in the qualifiers for Euro 2012; ends in a draw. Strachan is a fine manager and there are some good players in his squad, but so many blows to their morale are bound to diminish them. They must be wondering where on earth their next competitive win is coming from. What does Strachan do to lift them in the coming hours? “We’ll try everything, but there is a difference here. I know fine well what I can do as a club manager but as an international manager you can’t go and demand the same things. They’re here because they want to be here, not because they’re getting paid. You really can’t get into their face and demand things. You’ve got to get them around and say ‘We’ll try this and we’ll try that’ because I have no right to be forceful or critical of players in the dressing room when they’re not really my players.
“I can make a guy demoralised at my club for three days because I can work with him again, but I can’t do it at this level. Robert Snodgrass made an honest mistake with the penalty. What you sometimes get angry about as a manager is people not taking responsibility, people looking after themselves physically. That’s when I get angry. An honest mistake like that [penalty], it’s just a learning process. I can’t get angry with that. I couldn’t make him any more disappointed than he was anyway. I couldn’t. He should have come and shared a room with me on Friday night. He’d have been fine. We could have just sat there.”
After the match, Strachan said he might want to experiment in the qualifying games to come, but upon reflection he changed track yesterday. “Experiment is an awful word,” he said. “It’s disrespectful to those who pay their money to watch a match not a tinkering session. You’ve got to win games. You can’t just say we’re going to experiment. That’s no excuse.”
Experiment or not, nothing will work for Scotland until they learn how to look after the ball, deal with the pressure and be more robust in defence. These are momentous challenges. Strachan was asked whether the job is a bigger task then he imagined it would be. He said no, it is exactly as he thought it was. His demeanour told a different story. Maybe today he will be back to his bubbly best, but we saw a man yesterday who was in pain. We’ve seen that look before on the faces of Scotland managers. For the longest time, it is all that we have seen.