Gordon Strachan: Scots must control passion against England

Scotland boss Gordon Strachan barks out his orders during training yesterday. Picture: Craig Watson/PA Wire
Scotland boss Gordon Strachan barks out his orders during training yesterday. Picture: Craig Watson/PA Wire
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It’s not as if Gordon Strachan hasn’t had time to think about how to approach Saturday’s vital clash against England. Although Chris Martin’s winning goal against Slovenia came late, it was still over eight weeks ago that Scotland’s World Cup hopes were re-ignited.

If not every thought since has been occupied with how to beat England, then it’s probably true every second one has. Strachan agreed Saturday’s game – in which he might not even have been involved were it not for Martin’s winner in March – has loomed large in his life.

“I have been thinking about it for a long time obviously,” the Scotland manager said yesterday, at the start of such a critical week in his reign. “You have to look at it and go ‘that was good against Slovenia, do you move it about, do you put guys into different positions where they might not be comfortable, are they comfortable with that system?’

“There are a couple of things to think about and you know fine well nobody is going to tell you which way we are going to play. But we have got a good idea what we are going to do, that’s for sure.”

The danger, Strachan agreed, is over-thinking things. “In the last game the players lost themselves in the excitement of trying to win the game,” he said. “Sometimes you lose yourself in that battle.”

If players are doing that against Slovenia, imagine what it might be like in what is the first game against England at Hampden since 1999. It’s hardly surprising training was supplied with extra zest yesterday morning.

As well as Saturday’s match helping concentrate minds, there was the little matter of a win against Brazil just two days earlier.

It’s not often the under-20s can give inspiration to the senior side. But Scot Gemmill’s team’s feat at the Toulon Tournament – the first time in any age group that Scotland have defeated Brazil – was a handy reminder that, over 90 minutes, anything is possible.

So it is with this in mind that Scotland engage with the task awaiting them at Hampden. The players might be more accustomed with bagging spots on the beach at Torremolinos at this time of year, but Strachan has detected no signs of tiredness. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. They were in danger of doing too much.

Only Leigh Griffiths, consigned to barracks because he was “feeling a wee bit under the weather,” and 
Darren Fletcher, who’d played in Michael Carrick’s testimonial the previous afternoon at Old Trafford, were missing yesterday.

Kieran Tierney, meanwhile, was being measured up for a gum shield in the morning but was in attendance for the non-contact part of the session.

The full-back, likely to play at right-back against England, is experiencing no obvious discomfort from the mouth injury he sustained in the Scottish Cup final versus Aberdeen nine days ago. At least he’s match fit, which is not the case with everyone.

“There is a group of them that’s gone about a month without having a game, so we had to put on extra stuff for them this morning, hard work, after it was finished,” reported Strachan. “We took them away and the rest of the lads went ‘well if they’re doing it, we’re doing it’. So they all joined in. Much to the concern of the fitness coach, who was having kittens at the time.”

It’s clear the identity of Saturday’s opponents gives things an extra edge.

Scots will wonder if this is being reciprocated down south. Strachan was asked whether he could feel anything in the air last week while at home in the Midlands.

“I don’t go about asking people how passionate they are, to be honest with you,” he said. “I live in a kind of middle-class area. Unfortunately that’s where I live these days, sorry about that. Matter of fact, the neighbours on both sides of me are Scottish, so I am fine!”

While careful to avoid denuding Scotland, Strachan has to ensure his players do not let passion extinguish game sense. Playing England in a competitive fixture at Hampden is a special – and recently rare – thrill but there’s no point being so worked up as to risk fatally undermining your own team’s chances.

“Someone was saying to me about Scotland’s (good) home record in World Cup qualifiers, but Scotland used to be able to boot the living daylights out of any visiting Spanish or Portuguese teams,” said Strachan. “The rules have changed now. People come up and say ‘get right stuck into them and give them plenty.’

“But we can’t anymore. We give them 
plenty and we are playing with ten men.”

As ever, there are questions over who might Strachan select to lead the line. Griffiths started the last match and came so close to rectifying not having scored a goal for Scotland.

Luckily for the Celtic striker, his international famine was apparently news to Strachan, whose implied obliviousness – “I really didn’t know that, I should so thanks very 
much” – perhaps underlines how the manager really does have only one thing on his mind.