Aidan Smith: Where are the classic Scotland centre-backs?

Scotland's Grant Hanley has struggled in the recent World Cup qualifiers with Lithuania and Slovakia. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS

Scotland's Grant Hanley has struggled in the recent World Cup qualifiers with Lithuania and Slovakia. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS

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When the last brick was laid at the new Wembley – when the bolts were fitted to the last of those plush red seats which wait on corporate English backsides for a full 15 minutes after the re-start of every game – there was a lovely story about how Scots building crews had tried to jinx the place.

Lions rampant, tartan scarves and dark blue shirts had all been secreted under the pitch before the turf was laid in the hope they would cast a spell over the home side the next time we played them in a competitive match.

But with or without the help of a hex, wouldn’t it be oh so very Scotland to go down there next month and smash England, smash Group F wide open and re-ignite our flickering World Cup dreams?

Who, though, should be entrusted with scoring the crucial goals – or let’s be realistic – singular winning strike? Who should have the job of keeping them out at the other end in the problem area of central defence? And who should be the manager for one of the all-time great Scottish triumphs?

Some think Gordon Strachan won’t be in charge by then. Some don’t want him in charge by then. Well, be careful what you wish for. It’s easy plucking names out of a bunnet. Far harder trying to persuade the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson to come. Just as hard to make a case for Paul Lambert or David Moyes or Joe Jordan doing a better job.

Fact: Strachan helped the Scotland team rediscover its soul. Don’t take my word for this – Denis Law said it back in 2014 and he should know. He was the soul himself once.

Fact: quite a lot has gone wrong since then. Law was speaking on the eve of the home qualifier against the Republic of Ireland, won by Scotland with one of the most impressive performances of his reign.

Contributing factor: the Republic were dire. Some couldn’t believe how closely they resembled mid-table mid-1970s Football League clodhoppers. The same people were absolutely astonished that the Irish qualified for France at our expense. The same people, extremely grumpy at missing out on the summertime frolics enjoyed by the Republic, Northern Ireland and Wales, were probably among those booing Scotland as they struggled to a draw against Lithuania last Saturday.

Opinion: abusing your team is not smart and not clever. It’s what other nations do, those not as civilised and sophisticated as ours. The team were clearly in a jam; how on earth was booing them going to help them get out of it?

Opinion: playing games with the media is not smart and not clever. Strachan has always had a low tolerance threshold for questions from gentlemen of the press (Q: “Gordon, have you got a quick word?” A: “Velocity”). As an international boss he doesn’t have to submit to them nearly as much, so you’d think he might be less tetchy, less inclined to view press conferences as “32 vs 1” and admit that if he goes away without giving the hacks a line then he’s happy.

Fact: giving the hacks a line enables the national team to fight for space on the back pages, maybe even push the Old Firm onto the inside ones. The attendance against Lithuania was 35,966. Strachan is a great talker when the mood takes him. He can sell football matches.

Has the mood left Strachan? It might seem that way. And yet a corking result from Wembley would make all the difference to the group, the team, the national mood, the wee guy in charge. That’s where we fell down in the Euros campaign. The clodhoppers returned from Georgia and Germany with corking results. We didn’t and it’s a long time since we produced one.

Strachan quibbled about the quality of some of the teams in France, insisting they weren’t better that Scotland. OK, but Wales had Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey and we’ve no one that good. Just as important to the Welsh was Ashley Williams. When did we last have a centre-back that dominant and no-nonsense and my-ball? Was it Colin Hendry?

It’s not Strachan’s fault that we’re no longer in an era when Gordon McQueen can’t get in the team because Jim Holton’s already there. The manager is not to blame for that production-line grinding to a halt. Those keenest to jettison Robert Martin and Grant Hanley can only propose that a gamble be taken with the likes of John Souttar.

The team seemed loose against Slovakia. Too high-line, too bold. “What do you want,” Strachan could argue, “4-6-0?” The manager doesn’t have an aversion to strikers but he’s perplexed in his disinclination to play Jordan Rhodes, Ross McCormack and, most recently, Leigh Griffiths. His inclination towards Chris Martin has also perplexed, especially when the player is supposed to have been “outstanding” against Lithuania on Saturday only to find himself dropped on Tuesday.

Strachan likes a certain kind of footballer, for sure. Good lads from good homes with good habits. The manager has high moral standards and this is admirable. He can be entertaining about modern ills – and he’s usually right. There was a piece of praise for Darren Fletcher the other day which was actually a classic Strachan mini-rant about modern football ills: tattoos, crazy hair, infernal messaging. Fletch is afflicted by none of this and Strachan wishes there were more like him. But, lest we forget, football’s football: some heavily-inked players with complicated family arrangements can sometimes be prolific goalscorers.

In 2004 Strachan the moralist found himself at a show called Puppetry of the Penis. He was enjoying the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “This was the sort of thing I gave up management for,” he said. “I like going to the zoo, and I just picked strawberries for the first time. But there’s only so many strawberries you can eat before you go home.”

Is another sabbatical looming? After all, there are only so many Chris Martins and Grant Hanleys you can pick before you go home. But if Strachan does quit, good luck with that call to Fergie.

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