It was in 1986 that Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness earned their last caps for Scotland. Put another way then, it is three decades since a world-class player donned the colours of this country’s national side. Something has to be amiss for even the law of averages not to have thrown up a solitary performer that could be considered crème de la crème.
Scotland might be about to confront a handful of these when tomorrow night in Metz they face a French team who are favourites to triumph on home soil in Euro 2016 – as they did when staging the World Cup 18 years ago. With France boasting more than 12 times Scotland’s population and possessing a different ethnic make-up owing to the nature of immigration, making football comparisons between the two countries doesn’t serve any purpose for Scotland manager Gordon Strachan. However, the experiences of a nation far closer to home, who will travel to France while Scotland players disperse, does lay it on the line for an exasperated Strachan that “something has to be done” with reference to rearing the rarest talents.
“That’s a long time ago [that Dalglish was around]. So many other countries you can point to who’ve had players since,” said Strachan. “Look at Poland with [Robert] Lewandowski. Take his goals out, they wouldn’t be going to France. Stick him in our team, we’re there. Absolutely. [Gareth] Bale? You’re there. [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic? You’re there. Wales have two in [Aaron] Ramsey and Bale, it’s not ten.
“Can we produce one or two. That’s what you have to do. Produce the players, Not hundreds of them. One. When was the last time we produced a player who went to a top club? They have to push themselves to another level and we have to do it as coaches, not work to the middle of the group.
“We had one player in this squad that was in European football last season [Charlie Mulgrew]. So it’s good to see the Hull lads all going back up to the Premier League. The only problem is they’re passing the Norwich lads on the way back down. That’s where we are at the moment. I’m just waiting for the day Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Man United, Chelsea, buy a Scotland player. It would be great for everyone.
“And it comes back down to producing players. Four or five, not 100. Even two. Let’s be brave, and if we have talent force it out of them. Get more from them. Don’t treat them like the middle of the pack. Let them go. You can’t give up. No-one can blame this squad of players, they’re turning up, doing their best. But how can we make players better? We don’t have to make 20 better in the under-16s at Motherwell. We need to make one of them brilliant. That’s what we’re after. Maybe one brilliant one from Dundee, maybe two in Aberdeen. Don’t just pander to the middle ground. Let the ones at the top go, push them on.
“That’s why we’re good at individual sports. Chris Hoy, Andy Murray, they never had anyone holding them back in a group. They know to be the best they have to work harder than everyone else – but we do it in a group. And we pander to the middle. So it holds the best back and protects the ones at the bottom and ends up that no-one is being pushed. Years ago your leaders would push you. In fitness, they would go out in front and you would follow, make yourself fitter.”
Strachan doesn’t just feel he can speak as someone who has seen it and done it as a player who performed at the highest level for a quarter of a century and won the English top flight as a 35-year-old.
“I’ve also seen it and done it with my children and grandchildren,” he said. “I’m not saying people aren’t working hard but players can work harder, coaches can make them think more, give them more space, we can demand more.”
And demand that the “scared football” he believes Scotland teams are guilty of playing against the most accomplished opponents, which causes players to release the ball without a certain out because they do not truly trust their technique or positioning, will give way to passing for purpose allied to retaining it and having the courage and competence to take the ball past opponents.
“The top players in the world, [Andres] Iniesta, [David] Silva, guys like that, they’ll only pass it to you if they’re 95 per cent certain it’s going to get there. If not, they look after it. It’s not a big list of laws, it’s just common sense. Can we play with players who are older than us, as we did years ago, so develop your core strength more? And develop your character. You can hit 600 passes in a game but if 500 are in your own half, it’s no good. Bob Paisley was asked about what kind of passing he wanted to see, long or short? And he said ‘whatever’s best at the time’. That’s why Bayern Munich are so good, they can play any game.
“If no-one wants to ask me, that’s fine. But I’ll still be grumpy about it. I think I should have a voice considering I played at every level of the game from schoolboy up since I was 15. And I’ve had children and grandchildren in academies. I’ve been close to youth teams, I’ve trained them.”