The last time Gordon Strachan was in Bratislava he suffered what he has since described as his lowest moment in football.
So it’s just as well Scotland are aiming to re-ignite their World Cup qualifying hopes 40kms to the north-east of the Slovakia capital city, in Trnava.
“The thing is it’s lovely to be back in Bratislava but I am glad we are no’ playing in Bratislava,” the Scotland manager admitted yesterday.
Scotland did, though, train in the city last night. Strachan used the same wristwatch to time drills he wore on his last visit – which was to watch his Celtic side get thrashed 5-0 by Artmedia Bratislava in a Champions League qualifier. Making it extra hard to bear for Strachan, this was his first match in charge after succeeding Martin O’Neill.
His watch happened to stop that night he later revealed, a constant reminder of a setback that put his Celtic career in jeopardy when it had barely started. Another link is David Marshall’s likely presence in goal against Slovakia this evening – Marshall also featured against Artmedia in July 2005 and watched helplessly as five goals flashed past him.
The watch was only mended after Strachan exorcised the memories of that bleak night – Celtic won the second leg, but went out 5-4 on aggregate – by winning the league title in his first season at Parkhead.
“It’s back but it’s like Trigger’s broom [from Only Fools And Horses] – it’s the same one but it’s had a couple of new faces,” he said. “It was a long journey home, a long journey home…
“We will get a better storyline tomorrow, don’t worry about that.”
It’s a promise the Tartan Army hope he can keep. When Strachan says better storyline, he doesn’t just mean a less startling scale of defeat. The manager stressed Scotland are here to secure the “big, big result away from home” he spoke about in the aftermath of Saturday night’s disappointing 1-1 draw with Lithuania.
Reminded that Slovakia have proved susceptible to losing late goals in recent outings – Slovenia’s winner against them on Saturday arrived in the 75th minute, while England’s last month arrived in the dying seconds – Strachan responded bullishly.
“I am hoping to be in the lead by that point!” he said. “You can never plan it. When I went to bed on Friday night I couldn’t predict that scenario [v Lithuania]. It didn’t come into my mind,” added Strachan.
That scenario, which saw Scotland plunder only a draw in the dying minutes, means the pressure is on to secure a result tonight. Strachan described the criticism from outside the camp as “just noise”.
He added: “Inside the camp everything is fine. The boys are alright, they are fine. They are OK. If they weren’t alright we would have drawn in Malta and we would have got beat on Saturday. Their determination is fine. So everything is OK and we are ready to go again. But, yes, we need a big result away from home in this campaign, that’s for sure.”
Little is going right for Strachan at present. On top of anxieties over the fitness of skipper Darren Fletcher, the manager has had to accept he learned little from his trip to Euro 2016 to watch Slovakia play.
“They’ve changed dramatically since the two games I saw in the Euros,” he reflected. “It was almost a waste of time going there although I enjoyed being with the fans. What I saw was a 4-3-3 with two wide men. I’ve thought about that in the past couple of months.
“But they don’t play with wide men now. It’s changed quite a bit.”
Scout Steven Pressley watched Slovakia’s 1-0 defeat by Slovenia in Ljubljana and has briefed Strachan and the players. The manager was giving little away about his own team plans other than to admit there will be changes from Saturday, with Steven Fletcher a possible starter in attack in place of Chris Martin.
Ikechi Anya is also primed for a recall on account of his performances away from home in the past for Scotland. The Derby County player scored in Germany and Poland in the last campaign and could step in for Matt Ritchie, who was poor on the left side against Lithuania at the weekend.
But Strachan suggested there is only so much he can do. Hours of work on the training pitch were undone by a ponderous first-half performance against Lithuania.
Even one of Scotland’s most impressive away results of recent times was, he pointed out, a lot down to fortune. Asked whether he was looking for a similar performance to the 1-0 win over Croatia, then rated four in the world, three years ago, Strachan was not so sure. “Not really, we were lucky at times,” he said. “People said we were tactically brilliant. But nah, not really. We played the same way we had before, we just got a couple of breaks.
“A couple of their guys hit the ball over the bar from eight yards so, from being tactically brilliant, we could have got beat 2-1. We were just alright. It was nothing different from what we have tried before.”
As he was suggesting, people tend only to remember the outcome. They do over a decade on from his previous trip to Slovakia. Depending what happens, tonight’s result could also linger long in the memory. But Strachan clearly hopes this won’t be because of infamy.