IN ANY walk of life, reasons to be gloomy can always be found if you look hard enough, and the state of the national team is no exception.
Not only is Scotland’s World Cup qualifying campaign already all but over, the team are going into this month’s double-header against Wales and Serbia without two of their most gifted players – former captains Scott Brown and Darren Fletcher.
Add in the fact that Wales’ Gareth Bale is in outstanding form at present and Scotland manager Gordon Strachan would have every right to feel a little sorry for himself. It is a right he chooses not to exercise.
Instead, Strachan is happy to emphasise the positive. He may not have Brown and Fletcher to work with, but he has, he insisted yesterday, any number of players capable of inspiring him. Similarly, rather than dwell on the threat of Bale, he prefers to contemplate the damage he believes his own players can do to the Welsh and Serbian defences.
“We’d all love to have them [Brown and Fletcher] here,” Strachan said at Hampden after his squad was announced, “but as a manager you can always think negative thoughts. The positive thought is that I’m looking at this squad just now and thinking ‘He’s a good player’, ‘I like him’, ‘I wouldn’t have minded him if I was a club manager’.
“Snodgrass – playing terrific. Maloney – playing terrific. McArthur and Burke – playing terrific just now. There are a lot of people who are playing well at the moment. Even young Mackay-Steven – I’ve seen him and he eliminates people by going past them. Not always, but that’s what he tries to do. Being positive is what he does.
“If you want entertainment you get one of those ball-jugglers who comes on at half-time and keeps the ball up for 1,000 touches. What you want is real players. Some players who people tell me are top players never really participate in the game. This guy is participating in the game at the moment.”
Tottenham Hotspur’s Bale is one player who is not only participating in games at present, but winning them for his team. But, as he prepares for a game which he believes both Scotland and Wales will go all out to win, Strachan prefers to stress the threat that his players pose to their opponents.
“As a manager I don’t think I ever played against a side at the top level where I’ve not thought ‘we need to watch him’. You always have to think about what the other team are good at and how you can nullify that.
‘But again, you say to yourself ‘I’m going to work on this’. How can they deal with Burke, Forrest, Maloney, Fletcher? You deal with that and I’ll deal the other way.
“I’ve got all these good players – Snodgrass in the second half at Aberdeen [in the friendly against Estonia] was terrific. I’ve got these good players that I can work with. As a manager, whenever I’ve been successful, and as a player, you just need good players around you – it’s the secret of success. The important thing is finding a formation. It became a British-type game [in Cardiff] the last time. I don’t think this will be any more cagey. Both teams have to go for wins.”
The manager’s avowed willingness to go on the attack will go down well with the Scotland fans, many of whom were disheartened by what they saw as the excessive caution of Strachan’s predecessor, Craig Levein. But the incumbent warned that there would be times when the support needed to display a little more patience than they have often been willing to do.
“The fans are going to be huge for us, because wherever I’ve been in football, it does not work without the fans. I can’t ask them to do any more in terms of support, but what you might get at times is a bit more patience. That is from any fans, not just our fans.
“But I don’t think we are in a world where we can be patient. And, to be fair, do Scots people have that mentality, as players or fans, to be patient? I don’t know if we have that. We speak quickly, we eat quickly, we do everything quickly. That’s the way we are. I think it suits our culture as well. We’re not Spanish. So we have to find something that suits our culture.”
Having singled out Hibs striker Leigh Griffiths as a player who was particularly unfortunate not to be selected, Strachan made encouraging mention of three internationals who are currently back in Scotland and hoping to work their way back into his plans – Motherwell’s James McFadden, Kris Boyd of Kilmarnock, and Kevin Thomson, who has been training with Hibs and could sign for them today.
“People mistake Kris when they look at him and think ‘does he train?’ He does. He trains very hard and is very good at what he does and he is astute at the game as well.
“So it’s great to see him back. I spoke to him recently and he just needs to play games.
“You just let them get on with their rehabilitation. The same with Faddy, he needs to get on with it. He’s not played regularly for a couple of years.
“Kevin Thomson is the same. What a terrific midfield player. If Kevin was fit, he’d be in this squad, no question of that, but Kevin has to recover and get playing again. It is better to get on with it without having the madness that surrounds a Scotland game.
“He’s only 27 and still has plenty of time. As I said to a young man recently, if you miss two years out the game you can add that energy on at the end of your career if you look after yourself.
“I hope Kevin can add that time on at the end of his career. Kevin has had exceptional injuries. In my first game at Middlesbrough, he broke his leg, and Willo Flood got injured in the same game. Willo has come back but his injury was not as bad as Kevin’s – Kevin has been very unlucky.”