He may have wished he was closer to the French Alps than the Cairngorms but Gordon Strachan, the Scotland manager, happily held court on football matters in Aviemore yesterday before picking up his golf clubs for a hit in the SSE Scottish Hydro Challenge Pro-Am. A near 30-minute chat in the cosy clubhouse at Macdonald Spey Valley mainly focused on the European Championship, an event that is leaving Scotland like the kid with his or her nose pressed against the window of a sweetie shop as nations of similar size, including Northern Ireland and Wales, revel in reaching the last 16.
However, the first question put to Strachan was about the gap that has just opened up on his coaching staff following Stuart McCall’s decision to become Bradford City manager for a second time, meaning he won’t be involved in a 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign that will see Scotland taking on England, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia.
“Listen, like Mark [McGhee], Stuart is too talented a boy not to be working full-time,” replied Strachan after watching the local lad, Duncan Stewart from Grantown-on-Spey, join defending champion Jack Senior from England and Irishman Ruaridh McGhee to take part in a spot of footgolf – getting a football into a hole in as few kicks as possible – on the eve of the Challenge Tour’s now traditional summer stop in the Highlands.
“Neither of them can work computers or do a presentation and that might be against most managers these days. But what they have both got is a wealth of talent. They also want to make great players better and make themselves better. I told him [McCall], ‘I’m delighted and I’ll miss you’. He brought a nice balance between Mark and me. We locked antlers a couple of times and Stuart came in to separate us, so I am going to miss him.”
Asked if he had anyone in mind as a replacement, Strachan added: “We had a couple of games without Stuart when he was the Rangers manager, allowing him to concentrate on that. It was harder for the coaching staff, that’s for sure, so we’ll have to decide if we do that going forward or get someone else in.
“I don’t know if it would be a full-time manager. It might be someone who isn’t in a job just now – and preferably someone a bit younger – who can help me on the coaching side as well as the scouting side. These are things I have to start thinking about and I am meeting Mark and the people at the SFA next week.”
Strachan, who admitted it was “galling” for Scotland to be the odd one out among the Home Nations in this European Championship, expressed “admiration” for the likes of Northern Ireland and Wales for both having been successful in progressing from the group stage in France. He bristled at the suggestion, though, that just because they were enjoying success at the moment, as well as a country like Iceland, it automatically meant the same thing should be happening to Scotland.
“Of course it is,” he replied to being asked if that was a case of over-simplying things. “We have to do what is best for our country. I’m convinced, and I know that for a fact, that we are better than some of the teams there and we have proved it. Germany and Poland, two of the teams from our group, are flying along. What are Portugal saying about them drawing with Iceland? Iceland have something going on. Is it a one-off? Just a group of lads who have come together, that special moment? You never know. Can they keep doing this for the next 20 years? That’s the test.”
Scotland’s next test – that bid to reach Russia from Group F in the next World Cup – would be a lot easier, according to Strachan, if he had more players in his squad getting a regular taste of European football at club level. Pointing to Wales in that respect, he said: “They have a world star in [Gareth] Bale and they have top international players in [Aaron] Ramsey and [Joe] Allen. If you look where they play, they play regularly in Europe. Our problem is that we had no one playing in Europe. You need that experience. Wales have the experience of players who have played in European football and that makes international football easier. You go back to Celtic and Rangers ten years ago. Between us, we sent 11 players away with Scotland who were playing in Europe week in, week out.”
Slovakia, based on them beating Russia and drawing with England to almost certainly make it to the knock-out stage in France, have made Strachan think the World Cup qualifying campaign could be trickier than some people are predicting. “I think Slovakia was just a name to Scotland fans, but now we’ve had a look we’re thinking ‘Hmm … they’re not bad’. So we know it’s going to be hard, that’s for sure,” said the 59-year-old.
However, he is looking for his players to show the same spirit when that comes around as Dustin Johnson did to become the US Open champion on Sunday, 12 months after three-putting the last from 12 feet to be pipped by Jordan Spieth. “It’s galling that we put as much effort in as most teams to try and get there [France], but that’s life sometimes. You don’t get what you deserve until later on,” he said. “It’s like golf. You get a knock back but you keep going, you keep going and you keep going. That’s the real test. We have to do that.”
Doing so would leave Strachan with the last laugh. “When you get on a plane with England fans or Wales fans or Slovakia fans, it’s not easy,” he said of travelling out to a couple of the games in France on scouting missions. “They’ve had a laugh at my expense – but I can give it back.”