Little can be offered with any degree of confidence when it comes to the climax of Scotland’s 2018 World Cup qualifying group campaign. The humongous Hampden encounter with Slovakia on Thursday and the visit to Slovenia three days later are shot through with thrill and dread.
Even if the national team were to pull off the near miraculous by winning both games, coming through a play-off, and so ending a 20-year exile from major finals, it is hard to see Gordon Strachan remaining in post for another tour of duty. After four-and-a-half years in charge and involvement in three qualifying campaigns – only Craig Brown and Andy Roxburgh have had longer stints across the past three decades – his time in charge will either end on the ultimate high or reach its natural conclusion.
Over the next eight days, then, Strachan will likely seek his final qualifying group wins at the helm. So much has changed since the first that he presided over – the inconceivable victory away to Croatia with a patchwork side in June 2013. Yet, what has changed above all is one aspect that would have appeared to stay the same.
On that giddy night, Leigh Griffiths was handed his first Scotland start, grafting away manfully for 64 minutes in the lone striker role. On Thursday night, the Celtic striker will be handed his seventh start for his country in the lone striking role. There the similarities end for Strachan when it comes to the 15-times capped 27-year-old.
“From the Croatia game we won one-nothing he is a different person altogether,” said the Scotland manager. “He’s a different man altogether; he’s not the same person.
“There’s been an incredible change in him. That was like his not-so-good twin brother that was playing up there in Croatia. He gave it his best, in terms of what he had physically. But what he knows about the game and how he’s developed since then is beyond belief.
“Fair play to him because he was a man who two/two-and-a-half years ago was going to go to Hibs on loan again. For all the coaches he’s had and everything else, most of it is down to him.”
Griffiths is 100 club goals down the line from that Croatia game. Inside the past four months alone he has removed any vestige of doubt about his ability to perform and plunder at the highest level as a one-man central strikeforce. It could be no other way after he completed the scoring set with a first Champions League goal in the outstanding 3-0 victory away to Anderlecht on Wednesday. A finish that followed on from opening his international account with that never-to-be-forgotten free-kick double against England in June.
Griffiths’ private life and his devilish streak on the park are no longer presented as unhelpful distractions but the person that Strachan sees as utterly transformed is the one he only judges in a playing context.
“I still think he’s a lad that just keeps himself to himself and doesn’t bother anybody,” said the Scotland manager. “And when he’s on the training field he’s good and then he spends his time on his own after it. I was mainly talking about being a different footballer altogether.”
In the past couple of days, Griffiths would appear to have become altogether more central to the prospects of Scotland performing the great escape through racking up four consecutive World Cup qualifying group wins for the first time in their history.
Formerly one of the Celtic six who have been instrumental in breathing new life into a moribund campaign, the striker is now one of the Celtic four following the injury withdrawals of captain Scott Brown and fellow midfielder Stuart Armstrong.
The loss of the pair represents a heavy blow for Strachan but he can’t afford to see their absence in that fashion, He has to believe that between James McArthur, James Morrison, Darren Fletcher and Barry Bannan he has the mix allowing him to form an effective, what is essentially, a triangle in the heart of his side. “We are really strong in some departments and midfield is an area where we are strong,” he said.
Scotland may require the most rousing of finales to their Group F fixtures, but there is more chance of Donald Trump taking a vow of silence than Strachan sounding a battle cry for this week’s double header. He wants a clarity of focus from his players. He has to provide that by stripping the tasks in hand of any extra layers. Indeed, he is careful even to strip away the notion of “tasks” at this minute. Slovenia will only be meaningful to Scotland in the bid to claim the runners-up berth required to reach the play-offs in the event of Scotland beating Slovakia on Thursday.
“Everything is on this first game,” Strachan said. “And after that, hopefully, it’ll be a manic preparation for the next one. Everything we do is about Slovakia just now, all our thoughts. No-one can think about anything else. Everyone in the squad, players, physios, nutritionists, everyone.”
The requirement to post two wins can even be spun as providing simplification. “Sometimes in football, in life too, sometimes a clear picture is good because you just get on with it. We cannae disguise it. We’ve got to win. We have said over the last few games when asked, ‘yeah we have to win this’. We weren’t telling porkies, we didn’t shy away from it. We weren’t scared of it. We said we have to win these games which we have done and again we are in the same position. How you win them, you don’t know how it will manifest itself. You set out things, attacking positions, well more defensive ones actually than anything because when we have the ball we basically just give the boys a free role to attack.”
Strachan might be cussed at times but his unwillingness to resort to footballing tropes on these occasions is admirable – whatever hoopla might be produced in the Hampden stands in the most momentous international at the old stadium in a decade, Slovakia will be beaten on the pitch, not by a pumped-up crowd.
“It’s like going to a musical,” he said. “If the musical’s not very good you don’t get up and dance about and sing and tap your feet. You’re like ‘this is not very good’. I’ve seen a couple of musicals like that and you think ‘phff, that’s rubbish’. So you don’t join in. But you go and see Mama Mia or something like that, you’ll go ‘oh’ and you’re dancing away because it is good quality stuff. I know it’s not a classic musical but it is good fun.
“We have to give the crowd something. And it is amazing what turns the crowd on. Is it a shot at goal? Yeah, that does it. Is it a header at goal? There are simple things like somebody chasing someone 30 yards. I remember Griff doing it a couple of times against England and the crowd going ‘woah’. Somebody going for a tackle that they shouldn’t win and coming out with the ball. Brilliant. Somebody chasing somebody back 35 yards to toe-poke it out for a throw-in… that turns the crowd on.
“There are days when you might have the shot, might have the header but there are days when it’s not as good as that and you come in chasing somebody back, going for a tackle, closing the goalie down. Everybody can participate in that. Everybody can add to that one way or another. It doesn’t have to be with great football, you know.”
Scotland just need winning football. Toe-pokes, more than toe-tappers.