Gordon Strachan: Scottish game needs drastic action

National manager Gordon Strachan worked with the Scotland under-21s at training yesterday. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS

National manager Gordon Strachan worked with the Scotland under-21s at training yesterday. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS

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Mercifully for Gordon Strachan, his decision to retire from international football due to sciatica the previous year ensured he played no direct role in one of the most wretched nights in the Scottish national team’s history.

But the events at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon on 28 April 1993 have nonetheless left a mental scar on Strachan which only now does he feel in a position to heal.

Gordon Strachan at training at Mar Hall yesterday with Scotland under-21 coach Ricky Sbragia. Picture: SNS

Gordon Strachan at training at Mar Hall yesterday with Scotland under-21 coach Ricky Sbragia. Picture: SNS

It was the evening “a team died out there” in the words of then Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh after a humiliating 5-0 defeat by Portugal effectively ended hopes of reaching the 1994 World Cup finals.

It brought an end to a golden era for Scotland supporters who had seen the nation represented at the previous five consecutive World Cups. Although Craig Brown sparked a revival with qualification for Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup in France, that night in Lisbon remains a fork in the road which pointed to the decline of Scottish football.

It has long been identified as such by Strachan who watched in horror as a TV pundit as it unfolded, Scotland ripped apart by a free-flowing Portuguese side in a match that also saw Ally McCoist suffer a broken leg.

It has informed his views of what has gone wrong for the game in this country over the past couple of decades, an issue he now intends to actively address in a role which will extend beyond his primary role as Scotland manager. Strachan has already underlined his commitment to grassroots football as patron of the much admired Spartans Community Football Academy, reflecting his passion for change which he now hopes to spread throughout the country.

Scotland's 5-0 defeat by Portugal in 1993, a match which saw Ally McCoist break his leg, had a profound effect on Strachan. Picture: SNS

Scotland's 5-0 defeat by Portugal in 1993, a match which saw Ally McCoist break his leg, had a profound effect on Strachan. Picture: SNS

“From academies through to under-21s etc, I think we need to do something drastic,” said Strachan. “It’s become my thing now. It’s become an obsession.

“I was at Spartans on Monday watching the things they are doing for younger kids but it’s all about sport in general. In terms of football, I think I can make a difference but I think every kid can play a sport.

“But then we have to talk to the government and say, ‘You have to do something about this’. It’s been there in my head since that night in Portugal. I saw where it was going.”

The SFA and Strachan will unveil details of his plans within the next few weeks. He insists they will not impinge on or conflict with his front line job for which he has just signed a new contract to lead the national team into the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

“That’s a different thing,” he said. “That’s the World Cup, you need to take that away, it won’t make any difference to what I want to do with footballers from the age of eight.

“I might have to do one to do the other. I want to qualify for the World Cup, but I also want to do this. It may take me until I’m 70 to do what I want to do there, so management is different from that.

“There’s absolutely nothing else on my mind. I think you have to be part of the set up here [at the SFA] to do it, that’s for sure.”

Strachan is already extending his reach beyond the senior national team. This week he is working with Ricky Sbragia’s under-21 squad ahead of their Euro 2017 qualifier against Ukraine in Paisley on Friday.

As well as being a valuable exercise in assessing potential candidates for promotion to his squad, it provides Strachan with a welcome distraction from the Euro 2016 play-offs this week which are a painful reminder of Scotland’s failure to qualify for next year’s finals in France.

He decided against taking on a friendly international with the senior squad, feeling a break would be more beneficial to the players who suffered disappointment with him during the campaign which ended last month.

“It might be better for those players to have a rest,” he said. “They worked so hard, so hard. I worked out that, over the campaign, the boys had 66 days away from home. That’s a long time.

“I have always wanted to work with the under-21s, but I never had the chance because they were always playing at the same time. It’s impossible to do two. So I thought, ‘let’s have a bit of that this time’.

“It’s a case of me watching the players and how they get on with each other. How hard do they want to work? What sort of determination do they want to show? Are they willing to put themselves out for the team, for the group?

“Are they going to decide now that if they want to be a top player, they have to get their mindset around playing 55 games a season? Not 30. Not 35. But to that level we require for the senior team. Can they deal with that and not think stiffness is some sort of disease? Is there mental strength to go and play two games, whether it’s Kazakhstan and coming back to play someone else here? Can they deal with that? We will see who can deal with that.

“I want to get to know the younger players so that when they do come into our squad, and hopefully a lot of them will do that, then they know my terminology, my sense of humour, and I get to know them and what buttons to push. It took me about a year to get to know which buttons you can or can’t push with the players in the full squad.

“That’s why I would like to get to know them first, and I would rather get to know them as people first and then as players.”

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