When assessing the current calamities stalking the Scotland national team, there is a natural temptation to ask: “What would Walter do?”
In 2005, Walter Smith inherited the Scotland manager’s job when the country’s fortunes were in similarly dire straits to those Gordon Strachan now has the devilish task of alleviating. Smith succeeded by sending Scotland back to basics with a frugal formula that allowed them to score memorable wins away to Norway, Slovenia and at home to France during his 21 months in the post. Inevitably, following the soul-destroying defeats at home to Wales and in Serbia with which Strachan has opened his competitive account, questions are already starting to be gently posed about his desire to create a progressive, pass-and-move international team.
But the current national coach legitimately counters those suggestions by taking an entirely different approach to the problem. Rather than “What would Walter do?”, Strachan asks “Who would he do it with?”.
One of Smith’s first moves was to coax David Weir out of international retirement. But, looking at the paucity of centre-back options now available to Strachan – for whom Grant Hanley, below, a 21-year-old as raw as this spring weather, appears the defender most worth persevering with – the manager’s job appears, frankly, impossible.
His predecessors deserved no less sympathy, even if it was too readily denied some of them, since Scotland have not had the quality of player to qualify for major tournaments in more than a decade. Now, though, they do not even have the sort of player to attain the respectability which Smith at least restored.
Strachan said: “At this moment, you could probably say we need maybe more in-depth defenders, maybe more in-depth central midfield players. I can look back and there are all the players that were in there at the time [under Walter] and I had a couple of them at Celtic with people like Paul Hartley and Barry Robson. That is what Walter had to choose from.
“If you look at my [last] squad our [strength] is more about the ball players that are there with imagination. [Shaun] Maloney, [Chris] Burke, [James] Forrest, [George] Boyd, [Ross] McCormack, [Steven] Naismith, [Robert] Snodgrass and [Charlie] Adam. They are all that type. So that is what I have round me. I have [Steven] Fletcher who is a top striker. I have to pick a team from that squad. Probably if I had a lot of central midfield players then we would probably look the way we did in 2005. And, if they were bigger and stronger, it would look that way and, if we had more centre halves to choose from, then that might be an option. But, if you look at my team at the moment, and [Graeme] Dorrans in there and [James] McArthur in there [and Liam Bridcutt], I [have to] go with what we have a lot of.”
Strachan cannot magic up centre-backs, can’t, as he says, go and look at eight possibles around the country with the potential to call up. He can only hope that what is available to him remains available to him. If the situation for Scotland seems hopeless – when freed from the need to be diplomatic after his sacking Craig Levein stated in bald terms that it will remain that way for a generation – Strachan maintains it would seem a whole heap better if he had his strongest XI available to him.
With Scott Brown, Darren Fletcher, James Morrison, Forrest and Fletcher all unavailable when Scotland were vanquished by the Welsh and Serbs, in terms of personnel, he was dealt a pretty rum hand for his first international double-header. It is not new faces he needs for the next World Cup qualifier in Croatia in June so much as well-kent ones.
“If someone can tell me where to get new faces, then great.
“You can say it is a poisoned chalice but somebody’s got to take this on. The thought of actually making people happy keeps you going and it might be longer than what you think,” says Strachan.
“You have to deal with the cards you have. When I sit back and think ‘if we are all fit then we will be alright, we’ll not be world beaters but we’ll be fine’. That’s when we are all fit. We have to develop players somewhere along the line but that’s a different time, a different story. I can only deal with what we have now and I can’t use the fact we have been going downhill for years. That’s no good for anybody.”