Last month, while being inducted into English football’s Hall of Fame in Manchester, Gordon Strachan quipped: “it’s ironic, they are trying to kick me out of the Scottish one.”
Not quite, perhaps. Strachan, who won 50 caps for his country, will remain in the Scottish version for all time on account of his achievements, both as a player and a manager.
But it’s looking increasingly likely that Friday night’s painful defeat to England at Wembley will mark the end of his reign as Scotland manager after 33 games in charge.
Not because it was a particularly embarrassing result – one Scottish newspaper branded the defeat a humiliation, marking this apparent new low with a refusal to print a photograph from the night on its back page.
It wasn’t worthy of this extreme reaction. It wasn’t Hall of Shame material. It was just what mostly happens when 11 footballers go up against 11 poorer ones. It’s what happens when one manager has the comfort of several options in each position and another is puzzling over how to turn Championship standard centre halves into Premier League ones.
But Strachan’s tenure has certainly delivered less than once promised. Contrary to what some perceive, it’s clear he relishes the job. He is proud of being Scotland manager and takes seriously what he considers to be one of his principal tasks, looking after the welfare of his players. He might repeat it to the point where people start to roll their eyes, but it’s easy to believe he is hurting for the players as much as for himself.
“My job as a coach is to look after the players and make them better,” he said. “I am 59-year-old. It might be different if I was 35, but all I want to do is get people to a tournament and enjoy it. I want to get those players to a tournament and enjoy it. That’s all I want to. It’s all-consuming and when something is all-consuming, it’s very hard to bring something else into it.
“At this moment in time, it’s very hard for me to talk [about my future],” he added. “Trust me, it’s all-consuming, the players, because, when you look at them afterwards and tap them on the head, you feel like a dad whose kid has been bullied at school or something like that, If you ever get that feeling. It’s not right and that’s the way I am feeling with these lads just now.”
It’s understood he spent yesterday recovering from Friday’s ordeal watching a film from the 1960s on BBC 2 – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, starring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Sydney Poitier. On another channel the Scotland rugby team were snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in a thrilling autumn Test against Australia. On Friday night, as Scottish footballers were struggling to keep England at bay, the Scottish rugby league team pulled off a historic draw with New Zealand.
It’s not what Strachan needed as he attempts to shield his players from criticism. He stressed they had given him everything they had. They had stuck to the task even while England were playing keep-ball towards the end to mocking cries of “ole” from the home supporters.
The manager very deliberately described these players as “like family” on the eve of the Wembley clash, saying they had all become a “part of life” in the Strachan household.
It’s the other person who makes up the Strachan household who could have possibly decisive input on whether the manager stays or goes – his wife, Lesley.
It can’t be easy to see someone you love struggle, or hear and read the criticism. Strachan tried to avoid the noise in the countdown to Friday’s game but he is aware of the rising discord among supporters. “I have an understanding of what’s going on,” he said. “I am not daft. (But) I have never seen Sky telly this week or a paper. It’s like being in a crash, you don’t look at the crash. The reality is all-consuming, it’s the players…”
He tailed off, perhaps because he knew he’d said these things before. It will be hard to relinquish both the status and sometimes satisfaction of being Scotland manager but this, it seems, could be what he is preparing to do.
“I’ve done my best there lads,” he said as he sought to wrap up the conversation in a corridor at Wembley, meaning he’d answered the questions on his future with as much accuracy as he could at that moment. And he had. How much more was there to say in the direct aftermath of such a deflating defeat, the repercussions of which will be played out in the coming days?
He wasn’t about to resign there and then, as England manager Kevin Keegan once memorably did following a loss to Germany. That would have made it about Strachan, and he has an almost pathological desire for it not to seem this way.
He also fervently wishes the endgame might have come in rather different circumstances. Perhaps in retrospect he will regret not walking away at the end of the last campaign.
Not that it would have meant he was leaving on a high, since Scotland were ultimately frustrated in their aim to qualify for a play-off place at least following a draw in their penultimate game against Poland.
But the manager was provided with the warmest of receptions from the Tartan Army after the 6-0 win over Gibraltar in the last game in Faro.
On Friday these same supporters slunk off into the night, passing a lone piper busking at the foot of Wembley Way, playing a very fitting repertoire of laments.
Strachan has found himself stricken by the familiar frustrations that have hamstrung several other Scotland managers before him. The sense is even he knows he’s gone as far as he can with this group of players.