Gordon Strachan, speaking last week, described his dilemma over which striker to pick on Sunday night against Slovenia as his most significant decision to date as Scotland manager.
But, unusually frank as this admission seemed, Strachan was keeping something back. His biggest call has been percolating in his mind for some time.
Rumours of his exceptionally brave decision in switching Celtic’s Kieran Tierney to right-back began to spread during the day on Sunday, hours before kick-off in the must-win Group F clash. The reason he had not selected a right-back in his squad, something met with disbelief in some quarters, was now becoming apparent. It turns out he had sounded Tierney out about the positional change before the squad was announced just over a fortnight ago.
Strachan was preparing to risk playing a left-back at right-back in a game he knew was likely to define his managerial reign. Now he must decide whether to stick with this, on the evidence of Sunday, successful arrangement when England visit on 10 June, the next date his position as Scotland manager is due to be in jeopardy. With a right-back fulfilling Strachan’s criteria unlikely to emerge before then, the noises are he will.
Strachan certainly deserves this next chance to prolong his tenure after succeeding with so many key personnel choices against Slovenia. The decision to hand the in-form Stuart Armstrong his debut in midfield was a popular one so could not be described as particularly courageous. But Strachan’s choice to send on match-winner Chris Martin while surely alert to the likely reaction proved defiantly inspirational. His ploy with regards to Tierney, meanwhile, was audacious in the extreme.
The decision over which striker to play was actually dwarfed by this judgment call. Most accepted that whichever currently misfiring and inactive striker he chose up front was a gamble to some degree – and in Leigh Griffiths, for whom he opted, the manager’s decision also seemed vindicated, even if the Celtic forward’s lively first-half performance did not quite produce the goal he craves.
But being so bold as to play a teenager completely out of position? The consequences were potentially ruinous for Strachan, who would be made to look unforgivably cruel as well as foolish had the experiment blown up in his face.
The rumours circulating earlier in the day on Sunday were actually slightly misinformed. Some were reporting that Andrew Robertson, not Tierney, was being asked to re-locate to right-back. This assumption was understandable once it became clear one of Scotland’s two impressive left-backs was being shifted across to the opposite flank.
Robertson, at 23, is more experienced and playing with Hull City in the English Premier League, where he encounters brawny, athletic opponents every week.
Tierney is just 19. He has only featured twice for Scotland at his favoured position of left-back, never mind endured playing out of position in an area of the pitch where scrutiny is always fierce.
Switching him to the other side is something you would imagine even his Celtic manager, Brendan Rodgers, might feel was taking too many liberties.
But Strachan, who constantly stresses how he must strive to ensure players feel good about themselves when returning to their club sides, was prepared to take a chance with Tierney’s welfare.
“I had it in my mind for ages and I didn’t want to change because I knew what they were like on the physical side and how they would attack through the middle,” he explained yesterday. “People were thinking that Kech (Ikechi Anya) did well in midweek (v Canada). But I had it in my mind for ages to do it.”
Tierney was admirably keen to give it a go even if in an interview earlier this month, after the subject came up about a potential positional move, he admitted to reporters he might struggle if an opponent were to show him down the outside.
But such is the impetuosity of youth Tierney, who hasn’t played right-back since his early teens, betrayed no such fears to Strachan.
“He said: ‘No problem’,” reported the manager. “The boys have been calling him Danny McGrain for the last two days. Listen, he was just superb.”
Strachan felt no anxiety he claimed and stuck to his guns, reasoning how it had been done before with the aforementioned McGrain. So Strachan was building an annex on a grand tradition.
But McGrain, crucially, switched from right-back to left. Moving from left to right is generally felt to be a tougher challenge.
“I didn’t think it should be any different really,” claimed Strachan, with the wonderful benefit of hindsight. “There are loads of the guys who have gone to the other side, but when you have got two players like that you have to try and play them both. You have to try and get your best players on the pitch.”
Not everyone is in agreement about the identity of these best players, as was made clear by the reaction to Martin’s entrance with just under ten minutes left. It was another brave call by Strachan, who ought also to feel good about himself when he heads home to the Midlands this week, job prospects intact – for now.
But it is clear he was unhappy with the response to Martin’s introduction by a section of the crowd, whose grumbles and throaty jeers were embarrassingly loud.
“I have my own thoughts about that, but I will keep them to myself,” said Strachan, having had longer to ponder just what kind of supporter boos one of their own players. His comments immediately after the match about Kenny Dalglish and Gary McAllister also receiving such harsh treatment from Scotland fans were well-judged attempts to play down the furore. But it is clear he found the reaction unacceptable. “He is a hero in our eyes, that’s for sure,” he added with reference to the on-loan Fulham striker.
Who knows whether Martin’s neat finish will re-ignite Scotland’s World Cup campaign? A defeat by England will be a likely fatal setback. But Strachan deserves his chance to plot a famous victory in June after his brave calls helped secure such a vital one on Sunday.
He later explained to reporters that he couldn’t tell you what makes a good cricketer, with the point being that, when it comes to football, he knows what he is doing and to leave the major decisions to him. People often find him hard to love. But he is easy to admire for his ability to know his own mind.