HAVING once thought, and then thought again, about vaulting an advertising hoarding, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan knows all about encountering insurmountable obstacles.
This memorable episode was after he scored the opening goal against West Germany at the World Cup finals in Mexico in 1986, in a clash that Scotland eventually lost by a narrow margin of 2-1.
On the eve of another game against Germany, it was unlikely that Strachan would be permitted to fulfil his media obligations without being asked about this unique celebration at some stage. And it provides a convenient excuse to ponder whether Scotland can make the great leap forward in qualifying for Euro 2016 by overcoming the Germans, the freshly-crowned world champions.
“Can we do it? Yeah,” said Strachan yesterday. “Will we do it? The odds are 16-1, according to the telly.” Someone asked him whether these odds are realistic – that if Scotland were to play Germany 16 times, they would triumph only once? “Oh, so that is what that means?” replied Strachan.
Fortunately, Scotland do not have to play Germany 16 times. They only have to play them twice, once away and once at home. There is even a feeling that tomorrow night’s clash in the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund is Scotland’s game to give away – few expect them to return with a win or a draw.
This isn’t in Strachan and his assistant Mark McGhee’s thinking, however. Both have warned about the potential to ruin the improvement over the last 14 months by allowing the work rate to drop and the standards to slip.
Strachan has already revealed how the players have been working from 8am to 10pm at night. He also divulged that after some preparatory work on Germany on Sunday night and Monday morning, he declared: “Right, that’s it”. It was time to concentrate on what Scotland could do. Training has clearly been conducted in good spirits.
The manager possibly savoured the chance to take his mind off what has been occupying his mind from dawn until dusk for the last seven days.
He smiled when asked about his ‘leg-over’ celebration against West Germany. The midfielder was mocking the vogue at the time for players leaping over the advertising hoardings having scored a goal, something that has since been replaced by even more elaborate celebrations. He saluted Ikechi Anya’s ability, a contender to start in midfield tomorrow night, to do what he couldn’t in Queretaro 28 years ago.
“Even this week I saw a huge big hoarding board at training and Anya was sprinting towards it, and jumped it,” said Strachan. “That was something I only thought about doing in ’86. Anya leapt over this huge advertising board like it wasn’t there. With me, I’d seen players do it throughout the World Cup and I said to one of our lads, if we score and do it, knowing our luck, there will be a moat on the other side. We were laughing about ending up six feet down in a moat.
“So, when I scored, I thought I’d have a look and check. Obviously there wasn’t but I wouldn’t have made it over it anyway. I’m glad everyone remembers it, though. It was good fun.”
Strachan the player has now become Strachan the slightly more serious manager. Although Scotland have played 12 times under him, tomorrow is only his seventh competitive game. It is the start of a new campaign, something Strachan is relishing after arriving to pick up the pieces after qualification for Brazil had already become a pipedream, with Scotland picking up two points from their first four matches under Craig Levein.
On the eve of that campaign, prior to games against Serbia and Macedonia, much store was placed in having two winnable home games to start with. Although Levein wouldn’t say it outright, six points were the expectation. When this didn’t materialise, a gloom descended that affected the entire campaign, and perhaps only began to lift with a heartening 1-0 win in Croatia under Strachan. There is not quite the same pressure on Scotland in Dortmund as there was at the beginning of the last campaign.
The manager has not yet been able to rely on Darren Fletcher’s calming influence in a competitive setting. This is set to change tomorrow as the skipper prepares to make his first competitive international start for nearly two years, after serious illness.
Although Strachan conceded that the player is still not quite back to his old self, he is relieved to have him, particularly given injuries to Scott Brown, Robert Snodgrass and Graham Dorrans.
“I think it’ll take another couple of months to get right back to his best,” said Strachan of Fletcher. “But what he’s doing just now is more than good enough for [Louis] Van Gaal so I’m happy with that as well. He’s getting a game regularly for Manchester United. No matter if they’re playing well or not, the coach is saying: ‘you’re playing.’
Asked whether the same applies for Strachan, the manager said: “Does he fit into my plans? Listen, he’s a good player and I fit around them.
“He’s got so much experience too and everybody looks at him and says: ‘he’s played Champions League football all his life.’ He’s a great example too on how to deal with people. He’s got that ‘thing’ I’ve seen from people who’d worked with Alex Ferguson. He’s respectful of people about him. He’s also got that thing that if you’re standing in the tunnel with him you’re thinking: ‘I’m glad on your side.’”
Strachan is not averse to taking a gamble with players. He reasons that if they are in the squad, then they are good enough – and should be prepared to play. Given his oft-stated preference for deploying players in their preferred positions, he could turn to Craig Forsyth to fill the left-back slot after Andy Robertson’s withdrawal, although making a competitive debut in an away game against the world champions could be asking a lot of the Derby County player.
Strachan was particularly effusive about Forsyth’s club teammate Chris Martin, who is almost certain to play at some point tomorrow, in what will be his competitive debut.
“He’s terrific,” said Strachan. “You just need to ask the midfielders who trained with him this week about how good it is to hit a striker and the ball stays with him. He can see people. He’s 26 so it’s taken him time to get but that can happen. Sometimes the bigger strikers take longer to find out what they’re good at.”