Craig Brown on why he has sympathy for Gordon Strachan

Heads you lose. Grant Hanley struggles to get into championship Newcastle, so maybe hes not up to the defensive job at international level. Picture: PA

Heads you lose. Grant Hanley struggles to get into championship Newcastle, so maybe hes not up to the defensive job at international level. Picture: PA

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It is becoming a familiar refrain. Gordon Strachan has insisted that it is not all about him, adamant he is not thinking about his own position. That may be the case but he is in the minority.

His position is the talk of the steamie, with some blatantly pointing the finger of blame while others have a modicum of sympathy and struggle to see how anyone could overcome the side’s paucity of international quality in key areas. Losing to England is not embarrassing, nor was the overall performance at Wembley shameful, not really, not if people could distil the emotion and consider the gulf in class, but the fact that a result was so badly needed in the wake of the Lithuania and Slovakia matches is the real frustration and the primary cause of ongoing consternation.

Conceding seven goals in three qualifying games is not the kind of return that renders qualification likely.

Back in the days when Scotland were regular attendees at football’s grandest jamborees, the goals against column did not make for such gloomy reading. In the final two successful campaigns, before embarking on our 20-year exile, Craig Brown’s men booked a place at Euro 96 and then the 1998 World Cup, in France, and did so by losing just three goals throughout the ten-game duration of both qualifying groups. Oh for such miserly performances now.

“To qualify for major tournaments you cannot lose goals, we knew that. But, back then I had players like Colin Calderwood, Colin Hendry and Tom Boyd in defence,” said Brown. “Hendry had won the championship title in England [with Blackburn Rovers], Calderwood was a regular for Spurs and Tom Boyd was part of a Celtic team that was winning titles and playing in Europe, so we had quality in there.

“Before that we had [Alex] McLeish and [Willie] Miller, Richard Gough, Gary Gillespie, all players playing at a high level with their clubs, winning trophies and competing in Europe. We don’t have that now. We have a player who can’t get a regular game for Newcastle [Grant Hanley] and Newcastle are not even in the Premier League.

“I have sympathy for Gordon. What people have to remember is that in international football, there’s no transfer market. Club managers can spot areas where they are weak and go out and get another centre half. Even if you don’t have a lot of money, you can get one on loan or look around until you find someone who could do a job.

“At international level, you have a smaller pool of players to choose from and there’s nothing you can do about that.

“That’s why I am not one for criticising Gordon Strachan. He has a difficult job.”

But is a difficult job or an impossible one? After all others have tried and failed to make the lion rampant again and we still have endured 20 tortured years on the outside looking in. At the press conference to unveil his squad for the clash with England, Strachan said that the only question he had asked himself in the aftermath of the damaging Slovakia defeat was how he could get this group of players to a World Cup finals.

Given the number of times Scotland managers have come up short in their bids to reach major finals in the past two decades, and the inadequacies and frailties that undoubtedly dog the current squad, he was asked if there was a sense of hopelessness associated with that quest.

He didn’t address the query head on but the number of changes made to the starting line-up for the England fixture would indicate that he is still desperately seeking an answer. It suggested he knew what had been produced in Slovakia was not good enough. But given the pool of players at his disposal, some believe it never will be, no matter how often he shuffles the pack. Not when even the likes of Lithuania were apparently confident they could exploit Scotland’s defensive shortcomings.

Without a solid defence there is rarely a sound foundation for victory. People point to the likes of Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004 to suggest minnows do prosper. Greece did so on the back of clean sheets and snatched opportunities, Denmark had pace and guile and could counter-attack, while staying fairly mean at the back.

In more recent times Iceland were difficult to beat, while the likes of Wales prove that when allying that defensive concentration and grit with the presence of key players who can rise above the mediocre and offer more than mere mortals can muster, both the chances of qualifying and performances on the biggest stage are bolstered.

But, Strachan’s critics will argue that a successful defence can be greater than the sum of its parts. In a game of opinions, aside from selection disagreements, there are some who will point to zonal marking being an issue, that his failure to put a man on the posts at set pieces is proving costly and that maybe tactical switches and playing three at the back may help.

What is certain is that Scotland cannot keep caving in at corners, losing out to headers when crosses come raining in and serve up a steady diet of concentration lapses and marking mistakes and still expect a seat at the top table.

Second bottom of Group F after four games and Scotland are already in the position where another World Cup shut out is likely. In theory, it makes it the decent time to bring someone else in. But would that make a difference?

Those who look at the resurgence enjoyed by Northern Ireland under Michael O’Neill say of course it could and that is backed up by the progress made by the Republic of Ireland under Martin O’Neill. They have succeeded where Scotland have failed in recent times but is that due to managerial nous, tactical acumen or simply better luck and better players in the really key positions giving them a defensive foundation to build on and a more clinical edge at the other end to capitalise on that?

Those are questions that have people talking about Strachan, debating his future. He may think it’s not about him but, as the increasingly exasperated arguments and counter arguments rage on, that patently is not the case.

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