SOME memories are carried around as if they are dumbbells. Gordon Strachan knows all about that. There was a time when Scotland and the Republic of Ireland weren’t equals, which is how they are regarded ahead of their Euro 2014 meeting at Celtic Park on Friday. In the 1970s and 1980s, Scotland were a team that qualified for World Cups, while the Republic had never appeared in major finals. Then came 18 February, 1987, at Hampden Park, when all changed, changed utterly.
A sixth-minute Mark Lawrenson goal condemned Andy Roxburgh’s team to a 1-0 defeat. The loss meant yet another European Championships looked set to pass Scotland by and that the Republic, who had become uncompromisingly competitive and unashamedly anglified under Jack Charlton, no longer needed to be perennial also-rans. The bitter experience of that defeat at Hampden also meant something else to the then vastly experienced Strachan.
“That night I decided to get on the weights. I thought to myself: ‘I’m maybe not as quick as I was, I need to get on the weights.’ They played a midfield three and we played with two. I think it was me and big Roy Aitken in the middle, with Davie Cooper one side and Pat Nevin the other. They held the touchline and we got outnumbered magnificently in the middle of the pitch with some right good players. Ray Houghton was in there, Ronnie Whelan and Tony Galvin. We played too open that night. It was a normal 4-4-2. We kind of got outnumbered. I got on the weights. Did it work? Well, I played until I was 40.
“Seriously, I was 30 at the time and just felt I needed to get a bit stronger. I remember the night well. I remember I had to get ten tickets and they were £20 each. Due to tax, I got £40 for playing that night. I paid £200 for tickets. I was still in my gear with mud on it and the guy from the SFA came and handed me the bill for the tickets. So it cost me £160 to get a doing that night – and then I woke up in the morning with an axe on your head in the Daily Record. It was a fantastic experience. You’ve not been a player until you’ve had an axe in your head.”
It may seem hideously early to suggest as much but, if Scotland lose against Martin O’Neill’s side in five days’ time, their heads could be on the chopping block over Euro 2016 qualification. Maybe it is a mere coincidence that the last time Scotland qualified for a major finals – the 1998 World Cup in France – was the last time they won all their home games in a qualifying section. And, despite that record, they still only made it through as runners-up.
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Now, Strachan’s men find themselves in a three-from-four scenario.
Despite their World Cup-winning hangover, Germany will surely sober up to make Group D a joust between Scotland, Poland and the Republic for the other automatic qualifying place. An away win in Georgia and a snatched late point in Germany – in addition to the obligatory thrashing of Gibraltar – may give O’Neill’s side the edge on Scotland. Yet, the performances of the Republic have not been the equal of those from Scotland, even allowing for the fact that, ultimately, Strachan’s side had to cling on for a point in Poland. Privately, the Scotland manager probably recognises this encouragement.
Equally, just as with their Celtic cousins from within these borders, there has been a precipitous fall-off in the general standard of player that the Republic can call on compared to their golden period of the late 1980s.
Indeed, the fact that O’Neill relies mainly on unfashionable players from unfashionable English Premiership clubs – with such as Everton’s Scottish pair Aiden McGeady and James McArthur and totemic scorer Robbie Keane the exceptions – puts him pretty much in the same boat as his fellow former Celtic manager, although Scotland would appear to have more ball players in forward areas.
As he announced his squad this week, Strachan was at his impish, warm and relaxed best. He exudes a quiet confidence, but also a real joie de vivre about the nature of Friday’s game. Maybe he is even tickled by the fact that, with not much to choose between the two squads, it could be left to the two managers to make their mark on the occasion.
It makes for a terrific tale, with Strachan having succeeded O’Neill in 2005 at the very Celtic Park where they will play on Friday. Strachan admitted this week that O’Neill had been a hard act to follow, but that the pair ended up spending the summer aping one of the legendary double acts.
Ultimately, that is what O’Neill and Strachan were as Celtic managers – a double act. O’Neill, the charismatic Irishman with Celtic in his DNA, came in and rescued the club from potential competitive oblivion. In his first three years, he won as many titles as Celtic had won in the previous 18, having inherited a team that had just lost the title by a record margin. O’Neill also led the club to a European final in 2003. With Henrik Larsson having moved on, Strachan was never going to be able to replicate that feat.
Instead, the chippy Scot, a hate figure as a player for Celtic fans, carved out his own club history with a more inexpensively assembled side. He built on the O’Neill base to become the first manager to lead the club to the Champions League’s last 16, and the first since Stein to win three straight titles.
It is doubtful if the two men compared notes about their Celtic experiences when they hung out in Brazil while working for ITV during the World Cup. They might well, though, have ended up comparing favourite comedy skits because Strachan felt like he was in one.
“I think, because he had that affinity with the crowd, anyone taking over from Martin would have found it hard work. We’d just lost the league as well, so the thing was to try to win back the title and win over the crowd. But if you win the title, there’s a good chance you might win over a few. It would have been hard for anyone, but it was one of the best decisions I made in my life.
“I wouldn’t call him a close friend, but once we meet we get on great together. It’s not so much football we talk about – it’s films, music and TV programmes. We spent half an hour in the back of mini-vans going about Rio de Janeiro. We would drop the young ones off at nightclubs and we went home and listened to music on Youtube.
“And we’ve done stupid things like having our meal on the bed, me and him watching football. It was like Morecambe and Wise. He starts having a conversation, then goes somewhere else and you think, ‘Where’s he going now?’ He’s rattling on. He’s a good storyteller, good company.”
On Friday we will discover if the joke is on the one with the glasses, or the short one with the ginger hair.
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