A t least, when the time comes, there will be no pussyfooting around. No mealy-mouthed talk of seeing how the land lies at the final whistle. No suggestion the most important thing is simply avoiding defeat.
March 26, Hampden Park. Welcome to Scotland’s World Cup final. Versus Slovenia of all teams. It might only be the fifth game of a ten-match qualifying group but it’s already become must-win.
And this time, surely, not even Gordon Strachan could dispute this.
In those quotes that were included in the news bulletin emanating from Hampden’s sixth floor late on Thursday afternoon to confirm Strachan was staying in charge, the manager conceded it had been a “difficult” start for Scotland. But, he added, there were still 18 points to play for. Judging from recent history, Scotland will have to claim almost all of them.
There’s very little, almost no, room for error. If the pressure seemed intense against Lithuania, then wait for the countdown to Slovenia in spring to begin. The favourite pre-match question “is this must-win Gordon?” is almost redundant now. Everyone knows it is.
The average points total for teams finishing second in qualifying groups of six for Euro 2016, WC 2014 and Euro 2012 is, wait for it, nearly 20.5. The average goal difference is plus ten. Scotland are currently on four points, with a goal difference of two. They were pushing hard in the last qualifying campaign and got a total of only 15. Scotland are serial offenders at leaving themselves too much to do at the business end of qualifying campaigns, so it should be no surprise that this has again become their fate.
While the SFA’s decision to stick with Strachan is attracting plenty of comment and stick, it is probably the right one, for now. If, for example, the SFA’s favoured replacement is Michael O’Neill, it is unlikely he would wish to leave Northern Ireland at this present time. Unlike Scotland, they are just about on course to reach the projected 20 points total for a play-off place.
One alternative open to chief executive Stewart Regan and Co was to install an interim coach. But on account of the number of players stressing their support for Strachan, risking upsetting the applecart when qualification is not completely out of the question seems pointless.
So it leads us to a position where an under-pressure manager needs to find a way to re-boot a faltering team – and quickly. This unsatisfactory situation almost resembles the ridiculous events at York City earlier in the season, when Jackie McNamara was charged with getting a “positive result” v Braintree Town or else face the consequences. A 1-1 draw left no-one any wiser about what it meant for his future. Should Scotland land a similar result against Slovenia, what might this mean for Strachan? Another few days of limbo, another press statement from the SFA board, more obfuscation.
It isn’t difficult to imagine how uneasy the atmosphere will be at Hampden in March when Strachan returns there with a team shouldering a heavy burden.
The 1-1 draw with Lithuania proved edgy enough. Time was, ostensibly, still on Scotland’s side then. There were still opportunities to make up for the slip-up at home. The hope was that this salvage operation would have begun just a few days later against Slovakia in Trnava. It didn’t. Scotland lost 3-0.
Things had escalated to the extent that Scotland were travelling to Wembley for what most viewed as the trickiest game of the group needing at least a draw, but, really, needing a win. They lost 3-0.
Never mind that some aspects of the performance against the group favourites were commendable, the result still left Scotland on four points from four games. It left Strachan on the precipice.
The SFA board’s decision to back Strachan guarantees the manager’s future will be on the agenda before the next match. Anything other than a win – Slovenia are currently five places above Scotland in the rankings, so three points can’t be taken for granted – and the familiar post-match press conference dance will begin: What does this mean for your future, Gordon? And then the answer, something Strachan has down pat by now.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the players, it’s about sending them back to their clubs in a happier frame of mind…”
But even Strachan should surely realise he will not get away with this next time, in the event of a draw or, worse, a defeat.
He might have gained unanimous backing from the SFA board, but he knows the opinion in the stand is not quite so consistently pro- Strachan. He acknowledged this himself after the Wembley defeat. “I’m not daft”.
He realises he needs to get people back on side. With ticket sales for Slovenia set to be heavily scrutinised, Strachan needs to stir enthusiasm in an enterprise so many are giving up on.
International breaks are becoming a bind. However poor is the perceived state of the domestic game, its return feels like a benediction after these latest wearying adventures with Scotland.