WHAT a difference a year makes. At this time in 2013, Gordon Strachan was gathering a Scotland squad together for an end-of-season trip to Croatia which appeared about as appetising as a plate of cold gruel.
Strachan had been taken aback by the size of the task facing him and which had been graphically underlined in a dismally depressing Hampden defeat by Wales a couple of months earlier. But a most unexpected 1-0 win in Zagreb against the Croats, while far too late to salvage Scotland’s World Cup qualifying campaign, proved to be a launchpad for the heartening progress the national team have made under Strachan in the last 12 months.
Wednesday night’s 2-2 draw with African champions Nigeria at Craven Cottage was marked by both buoyant optimism off the pitch among the reinvigorated Tartan Army, and a display of considerable enterprise and self-belief by the players on it.
All of a sudden, the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign which starts with a trip to Germany in September can’t come quickly enough for Strachan’s squad and those who invest so much both emotionally and financially in following their fortunes.
In a job to which he increasingly looks ideally suited at this stage of his career, Strachan has established a 4-2-3-1 system his players are comfortable with and which they are now translating into the kind of consistency which will be required for Scotland to end their long exile from major tournament finals.
Strachan may joke that he is enjoying his job so much because it is “part time” in comparison to the intensity of club management. But SFA chief executive Stewart Regan has no doubts about the comprehensive nature of Strachan’s work so far.
“Gordon has turned things around in every department,” said Regan. “We are a completely different team from the one we had 12 months ago. I remember chatting with him within weeks of him joining us and he was scratching his head about the players at his disposal, particularly the ones in his back four. It was makeshift in many ways as we don’t have that many centre-halves. But he made one or two changes and brought in guys such as Russell Martin and Grant Hanley who have been rock-solid along with others. Some of the players against Nigeria were excellent, including ones Gordon has brought in. Chris Martin of Derby was excellent, while young Andrew Robertson was outstanding at left-back. You can’t believe he was playing for Queen’s Park 18 months ago and selling programmes at Hampden. He’s been a fairy story and is now staking a claim to make that left-back position his own.
“Gordon has worked with the players at his disposal and what makes it even more impressive is that he’s not been building a squad for years. You can’t buy players either. You are dealt a hand and he has done a remarkable job with players who are not big prima-donnas. We have guys in the Scottish Premiership, the English Championship and one or two from the English Premier League and he has made them into an impressive unit. We are difficult to beat and now have competition for places all over the pitch.”
Regan says Strachan has brought his renowned acerbic wit into the SFA workplace, although he is also proving a low maintenance employee from the chief executive’s point of view. “Gordon is very funny,” added Regan. “His one-liners are hilarious. Everyone is smiling when he is around, but he is quiet in many ways. He’s not in your face and larger than life, knocking on your door. We don’t spend a huge amount of time with him. When he’s in the office, we do try to spend quality time talking about his preparations, any issues he’s got, things he’d like to change and basically doing what we can to help him. But, by and large, he is hands-on with a good backroom staff who help him. He’s actually quite a reserved guy and doesn’t crave the public eye. He does that side of the job because he has to.”
Strachan’s other role as one of ITV Sport’s main pundits is also proving beneficial ahead of the Euro 2016 qualifiers. “You expect some really difficult games in the section against the likes of Republic of Ireland, Poland and, especially, Germany,” said Regan. “But Gordon understands an awful lot about the players and we should never forget his network and understanding and knowledge of others. Watching teams and working with TV, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of players and teams and that is going to help us enormously in the Euro 2016 qualifiers.”
While not all is entirely rosy for the Scottish national teams, with both the under-21 and under-17 sides soundly thrashed by their Dutch counterparts in the past couple of weeks, Regan believes the overall strategy is sound. “I do feel we are making progress,” he insisted. “We set out three years ago with an emphasis on performance. We brought in Mark Wotte as performance director, hired more coaches and set up the performance schools. A lot of that is for the future. We have to manage it and Mark is keen to put in place a style and philosophy different from Scotland in the past, about passing and attractive football.
“But what is really exciting is that we’re seeing signs in players coming through. To have three youth teams qualify for major tournaments in one year, the women’s A squad top of their World Cup qualifying group, the Victory Shield team winning the trophy for the first time in 15 years and the A squad under Gordon going through a great run of form, all gives us optimism.”