wHEN he first took over as Scotland manager, Gordon Strachan knew he had a hard job on his hands. But he did not know exactly how hard, and perhaps he still doesn’t.
When he came into the Hampden auditorium for his press conference after the 2-1 defeat by Wales in March, Strachan looked shellshocked. Before beginning, he sat down and softly said a few words to himself, searching for the composure which had been knocked out of him by the ease with which the Welsh fought back from a 1-0 half-time deficit.
It looked clear then that reality was sinking in. That a man who is optimistic by nature, who has had the power to inspire his teams to make sudden changes in their fortunes, was coming to terms with the grimness of his present position.
It would be reassuring if we could say with any conviction that the rot stopped there. That Strachan, having been confronted with the full misery of the picture, was immediately able to start introducing the odd dash of brightness.
But we can’t. The 2-0 defeat in Serbia four days later brought no encouragement, with the most effective Scottish performance in Novi Sad being the efforts by members of the Tartan Army to clear the pitch of snow beforehand.
After those two matches, the position was at least clear. Scotland, finally and undeniably, had no chance of qualifying for the World Cup finals.
Never mind challenging for the top spot in Group A, or aiming to sneak a place in the play-offs, the national team’s target now is to get off the bottom of the table.
With two points from six games, they are two behind Macedonia, four adrift of Wales, and five behind Serbia, with Belgium and Croatia out in front on 16 points apiece.
So is this the worst it can get? Yes, in the sense that, when you’ve reached the bottom, you can’t go any further.
But, in any other sense, in any real way of measuring the situation, there is no such guarantee. There are no safety nets in international football. No quick fix comparable to ailing clubs’ ability to dip into the transfer market.
You can try to make your current squad better. You can bring new players into the squad in the hope that they will not be desperately outclassed. And you can attempt a combination of the two in the hope that an almost random mixing of disparate elements will produce a positive chemical reaction.
But, if the raw material is unpromising, there is only so much you can do. That is the position Strachan is in at present, and at least more or less everyone recognises it.
We know the manager has a long-term task of improvement on his hands, and there will be no credible campaign against him if he suffers a few reverses along the way. Unlike Craig Levein, who latterly was treated by some as if he were deliberately engineering Scotland defeats, Strachan has the backing of the vast majority of those who still care about the fortunes of the national team.
But, while he has that reservoir of goodwill to draw on, Strachan cannot afford to commit all his efforts to making those long-term improvements – nor would he want to. For the sake of his players’ confidence if not for that of the supporters, he needs to make some progress game by game.
In the context of the current World Cup campaign it does not matter at all what the result is on Friday night. It’s a dead rubber. Perished beyond repair.
But it is obvious that a severe defeat would do no good whatsoever. Some honour needs to be restored and, if the game is lost, then at least let it be after a spirited performance.
Yet even such a defeat with dignity will be difficult enough to achieve. For a start, the scheduling of the match has done nothing to help Scotland’s chances. Our season is over, our players fatigued, and none of them will look forward to playing in the high temperatures which are expected in Zagreb.
Then there are the injuries and withdrawals, particularly in midfield. A Scotland midfield at its best, one which contained Darren Fletcher, Scott Brown and Kris Commons, for example, would have a chance of holding its own. But Fletcher is still unwell, Brown is unfit, and Commons is unwilling to play for his country again.
Then there is the defence. Lee Wallace and Danny Fox are still formally in the squad but almost certain to miss out, and Gary Caldwell is absent as he is about to undergo hip surgery. Central defence, in particular, is a worry, with Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic in such fine form at present.
Up front there is at least a measure of hope to be found in the inclusion in the squad of Leigh Griffiths – provided, that is, that the Hibernian striker has managed to shrug off the thigh strain which inhibited his efforts in the Scottish Cup final eight days ago. Griffiths will be almost an unknown quantity to the Croatians, and in any case has the sort of unpredictability that can unsettle any defence. Crucially, his morale tends to be unaffected by what is going on around him. Accustomed to being the most technically gifted member of a team, he does his own thing regardless.
Still, while Griffiths’ attacking instincts will be given free rein, Strachan will surely have to curb his own. There is no point going for broke against such gifted opponents: such a death-or-glory option, understandable in a knockout match, would in this case result only in death, and a most inglorious one to boot.
Instead, the manager will surely tell his team to play cautiously, and as calmly as possible while remaining competitive. We may not expect a dramatic recovery but some evidence that the rot has stopped would be nice. And, after his traumatic introduction to the job, Strachan will surely feel the same way.