What a difference a year makes. Twelve months to the night after Gordon Strachan’s name was sung by fans after a 6-0 win over Gibraltar the Scotland manager faced calls for his removal.
Strachan would not be drawn on his own future as Scotland’s World Cup hopes were severely dented in Slovakia last night.
Scotland fell to their heaviest competitive defeat since a 4-0 loss away to Norway in another World Cup qualifier in August 2009. They rarely looked like securing at least the point most felt was needed to resuscitate chances of reaching Russia in 2018. Instead they managed to nearly cancel out the positive goal difference mustered in the opening 5-1 win over Malta.
But just one point out of six on offer picked up in a double header against Lithuania and Slovakia means Scotland have another mountain to climb to qualify for a major finals. A double from Robert Mak and header from Adam Nemec sealed Scotland’s fate in Trnava last night.
Strachan said his concerns were for the players and the fans rather than himself.
“At this moment in time the people I feel sorry for are the players, they put so much work in the last couple of games,” he said. “They are the ones I feel sorry for, they are the ones I am wondering ‘how do I protect them?’. How do we send them back to clubs feeling good about themselves?
“They can’t go back thinking they could do any more. I am proud of them as a group. The second group I feel for is the supporters who have come here tonight. You feel for them. That is what we are thinking about right now. I am not sitting here thinking about myself. It’s these lads and how we look after them and how in the future we can give the supporters something to sing and dance about away from home. That is what we are concerned about. That is where our concentration lies.”
Strachan stressed it was still realistic for Scotland to target finishing second, with a game against England to come at Wembley next month. “It is amazing how form can change in just two weeks,” he said.
“We are looking at that as another opportunity to get three points. Look at the table, we’d like to be better off. We are one point off a play-off place. It is a crazy group. The thing is to get back on the plane and send them away feeling better about themselves. Some of them come here feeling really good about themselves. You are trying to send them back that way. I keep repeating they don’t get paid for this. They come because they want to be here. When you get body blows like that it’s hard.”
Slovakia were better than Scotland in nearly every department. Their manager, Jan Kozak, revealed he had expected Scotland to play with two strikers. “But they played a bit differently,” he observed.
Some of the travelling fans turned on Strachan in the second half of last night’s reversal. It was a just a year ago that these same fans convinced the manager to remain in charge after the disappointment of the last failed qualifying campaign. They sang his name after the 6-0 win over Gibraltar, persuading him to extend his contract.
Strachan thanked the players for their efforts and pointed out Slovakia’s opener stemmed from what most felt was a foul on Steven Fletcher, who was barged by Jan Durica.
“I was pleased with a lot of what went on in the first half, the three in the middle were excellent, we were keeping the ball and getting it wide,” he said. “I was sitting there thinking: ‘I like this’. Then a decision goes against us. I thought that’s not fair on these guys. They are playing well and playing against a more physical side. Just when we needed a break, it goes against them.”