Gordon Strachan looks at Oli Burke and doesn’t see the finished article but he does see a player who offers him some hope.
The youngster’s switch to the Bundesliga has heightened his exposure to a different style of football and while Strachan would prefer if there was a different way, he is managing the nation at a time when fewer Scots than ever are sampling European competition.
“I would love to see our clubs playing and doing well in Europe. As a Scotsman, that’s what I want. I want players to get experience there if possible and making their team better, playing in Europe and getting that experience,” said Strachan, inset.
“But, at the moment, we have a team that has no real European experience. Pep Guardiola was talking about the experience Barcelona have from playing in Europe for the last 25 years constantly. We have players who never see European football, and it’s a big difference, trust me. It’s a different game altogether.
“Going back years ago you had six or seven Celtic players, six or seven Rangers players, Aberdeen players, Man U players, everybody played in Europe for a long time. We do not have that now.”
Instead the Scotland manager heads into the vital World Cup qualifier against England with a team that has already dropped five points from nine in the opening three group matches and now needs to pull something miraculous out the bag to end the 30-year exile from major tournaments.
It is an issue that is too big for one man to solve, and finances and the fact that there is much catching up to do may mean those days may never return. But Strachan says the national set-up has attempted to aid the clubs.
“That’s what we tried to do last year by helping the Scottish teams, saying we have two friendlies. If you want to pull your players out, do that. We had two squads to protect the players. European football is a must for the players to get better. We must go back and get players that are good enough to make their teams better and go into Europe.
“We seem to get to August and that’s it and it’s not real European experience. It’s playing in the summer against Icelandic and Maltese teams and teams from Liechtenstein, which have given us all problems to be fair. We have to sort that out and there’s things we can do I think in the future. But if you look at the squad just now, who’s playing European football? It’s the Celtic boys really.”
It means that international football is providing the education, with many youngsters serving their apprenticeship in the dark blue of Scotland rather than coming through fully qualified and able to shoulder the burden of responsibility.
But having accepted that the know-how is not out there, Strachan has decided the best option is to get youngsters in the squad and accelerate their learning, which is why he is happy to stick with the likes of Callum Paterson rather than trawl about for a back-in-form Phil Bardsley or someone else of his ilk. “Callum has never let us down. I think he’s getting better and better at right back. He’s a presence in both boxes. He can put in a good cross. He’s learning his trade as a right back, unfortunately it’s at the highest level in international football. But that will help him and that will help Hearts.
“At the moment we’re actually helping with European experience by putting players in who don’t get that with their clubs. So it’s reverse with Scotland. You get international stuff then hopefully your club gets in and you take that experience. It was the other way around for years.”
There is something about matches against the Auld Enemy that has us rifling through the archives, dredging up past glories and near misses. A fixture rammed with history and nostalgia, the grainy footage of Wembley Wizards et al remind us of a time when we had parity or even superiority, when our players were sought after and central figures in every English side.
That is no longer the case. “There’s two things,” said Strachan, “European football and lack of football for some. I ticked off eight last night who are not regulars in their clubs. It’s a growing problem for us as a football nation but that has to be sorted out a way before us.”
That bigger problem is an issue for another day when his mind is not set on solving the immediate issue of overhauling the odds and finding a way to combat the class and the pace possessed by the English players and convincing his that where there is a will there is a way, albeit as a collective rather than one on one.
“If you were to put the individuals up against each other to have a race, we would have a problem. What you have to do is protect yourself as a group to not be isolated. That’s what we are going to try and do.”
Admitting that this World Cup qualifier could easily be pitched as a Premiership v Championship clash, as the multitude of multi-million-pound superstars play host to a Scotland side comprised of many lower standing and often sidelined pros, Strachan remains confident that as a unit, Scotland can cause a surprise.
‘You could put it that way, I spend a lot of my time going to Championship games. But we don’t think that way. I’ll leave it to other people to decide what the size of the task is. We are relishing it.
‘We’d love it if we’d an extra few points, it would make it a bit better. But that’s our fault. You can’t blame anyone else on that. We had the opportunity to pick up six points and we didn’t. It’s a chance now to get three points on the board and back to where we want to go.”