Gordon Strachan’s emotional return to Easter Road

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GORDON Strachan has the chance to fulfil a childhood dream against Qatar next month. Already relishing the opportunity to occupy the home dressing room at Easter Road for once, the Scotland manager can now look forward to the prospect of lifting silverware at the ground where he watched his first football match.

A game that was already much more than just a friendly now has the added incentive of a trophy. Along with squad sheets listing the 26 players selected for both the clash with the desert state as well as the much more vital Euro 2016 qualifier with Ireland eight days later, reporters were handed a media release from Qatar Airways. It confirmed something will be at stake in the first of these matches – the Qatar Airways Cup.

Qatar Airways UK and Ireland manager Richard Oliver and Gordon Strachan with the Qatar Airways Cup. Picture: SNS

Qatar Airways UK and Ireland manager Richard Oliver and Gordon Strachan with the Qatar Airways Cup. Picture: SNS

It means Strachan, if things go to plan, can enjoy winning a cup on his debut at Easter Road as a member of the “home” team. There has been one informal outing for Hibs, the team he supported as a boy. He finally got to pull on the green and white jersey when guesting for the Easter Road side in Gordon Hunter’s testimonial against Coventry City in 1996.

Strachan was player-assistant manager for Coventry at the time and he revealed yesterday that Ron Atkinson, the manager, went in the huff with him afterwards.

“I actually scored that night and big Ron never spoke to me for two days, because it finished 1-1,” recalled Strachan yesterday.

There was another, more painful testimonial experience at Easter Road, on top of the league and cup games he played there for Dundee and Aberdeen. This one was in 1988 when he was playing in the colours of Manchester United while honouring yet another Gordon – the long-serving Hibs centre-half Gordon Rae.

“I was lying on the track in the rain, thinking ‘what’s this all about?’  ”

Gordon Strachan

Tough-tackling full-back Joe Tortolano refused to recognise the more processional nature of the occasion and sent Strachan sprawling with a reckless tackle in the opening minutes. Ignoring pleas to simply ask the bench to replace Tortolano with someone else, Edinburgh referee George Smith sent him off. Not that Strachan was one of those making the pleas. He was otherwise preoccupied: “I ended up on the track. I had been out injured for six weeks, and the guy got me right in the same spot again. I was lying on the track in the rain, thinking ‘what’s all this about?’ ”

Strachan did query why, given his long association with the ground and the team who play there, this particular episode was being brought up. “Do you want to talk about the time I got attacked at Celtic as well just to make it a really good day?” he quipped on a morning that was clearly not just another assignment for the Scotland manager. How could it be?

Strachan was thrilled by the presence of a very special guest yesterday – his own mother, Catherine. She helped her 58-year-old son with his trip down memory lane as he admitted leading Scotland at Easter Road would mean something more to him than normal. These are, after all, the streets of his youth.

It is where his father, John, took him to his first match – which Strachan thinks was a Coronation Cup game with Aberdeen in the early 1960s. It was also where the son took his father to his last game – a derby draw between Hibs and Hearts in April 2011. The poignancy of this is hard to miss. How he wishes his father, who died of lung cancer later that year, was around to see his son in the dug-out on Friday 5 June. Of course, by the time of his father’s death, Strachan had already done enough, more than enough, to make him proud.

The Scotland manager in a Hibs strip in 1996, when he played at Easter Road in Gordon Hunter's testimonial

The Scotland manager in a Hibs strip in 1996, when he played at Easter Road in Gordon Hunter's testimonial

Strachan noted how times were now different to the days when he’d hop on a bus to get to Hibs games from Muirhouse, where he grew up in a backyard that was also home to the likes of author, and fellow Hibee, Irvine Welsh.

“I got driven here today, which is a bit different to a No 16 bus,” said Strachan, who was picked up at the airport after his journey from his home in England. He was stimulated by the surroundings on his arrival at Easter Road.

After all, it’s not everyday he is greeted at work by his mother. Catherine scanned the walls of the media room, where a portrait of Gordon Smith hangs. Strachan was very nearly named Gordon Smith Strachan, his father’s preference. However, this preferred option was vetoed by the very person who sat quietly yesterday at the edge of the room as her son fielded questions from reporters. “They’re not as bad as I said, eh?” Strachan said to her afterwards.

He, too, was on his best behaviour, considering each subject lobbed his way with politeness, including one potential grenade on the subject of the identity of the opposition. Is it ethical to be playing a country mired in controversy surrounding the treatment of workers frantically putting in place the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, which is itself an area of great contention?

“This is the not the time for me to talk about politics,” answered Strachan.

But he was prepared to indulge those interested in the very personal relevance of next month’s clash at Easter Road. Strachan surveyed the scene from an upstairs window yesterday. “My granny used to live at the back of that stand,” he recalled. “My auntie used to live about 300 yards from here. I came to my first game of football here with my dad.

“The last game of football my dad came to, I took him here. It’s a big place for us, a big area. It’s my area, the Leith area.”

No matter that the identity of the opposition has drawn criticism from several quarters, the forthcoming clash with Qatar will mean something extra special for Strachan. If he can top it off with a trophy – even one named so prosaically after a company described as the “official match airline partner” – then so much the better.

But the streetwise Strachan also knows that, after such an emotional return to his roots, a far tougher test lies just around the corner.