Gordon Strachan vindicated over Scotland selection

Darren Fletcher, centre, applauds the home support as the Scotland team leave the pitch after clinching a nerve-shredding victory over Slovakia. Picture: John Devlin
Darren Fletcher, centre, applauds the home support as the Scotland team leave the pitch after clinching a nerve-shredding victory over Slovakia. Picture: John Devlin
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Stubborn, unadventurous with a tendency to be overly
loyal; these are crimes for which Gordon Strachan would gladly plead guilty. He was certainly not in the mood to apologise yesterday. Why should he be?

He had just masterminded another pulse-quickening, nerve-shredding Hampden Park victory.

Strachan’s personnel decisions against Slovakia were justified to the extent that two of his second-half substitutes combined in the dying moments to force the goal taking Scotland into second place in Group F at what is fast approaching the critical moment.

Now the trick is to stay there with victory over Slovenia in Ljubljana tomorrow night.

While he will be aware opprobrium could lie just around the corner, Strachan can seemingly do no wrong at present. He even predicted it would be a long and nervous night on Thursday. He’s becoming the most unusual phenomenon – a prophet with honour in his own country.

Even his critics were happily accepting they had been wrong yesterday. Who would have picked that team, asked Stephen Craigan, the BT Sport pundit, on Twitter. “That’s why Gordon’s in charge,” he added.

As a matter of fact some did expect Strachan to go with Darren Fletcher, James Morrison and Barry Bannan in midfield, which was reckoned to have been the area where he faced his most troublesome calls. He had spent most of the week talking up Bannan – not necessarily a sign he would pick the Sheffield Wednesday midfielder, granted. Strachan has form for love-bombing players prior to leaving them out completely.

Bannan’s case was advanced further since he is such a reliable squad member, one who rarely complains and nearly always turns up. He repaid Strachan’s faith by growing into Thursday’s game. “I am quite loyal to players but the loyalty is not blind,” cautioned Strachan yesterday, alert to the misgivings of many on hearing the team news prior to facing Slovakia.

He stressed there’s always method in his seeming madness. He has to divorce himself from the chirruping of club managers and often one-eyed advice from fans.

“I understand that every manager wants players from their club to play, I’ve got that,” he said. “I understand that every supporter wants their boys to play. I’ve got that as well. I’ve not got a problem with that.

“But what they don’t all do is the research that I do. I go round every game my players play, I see everything.”

The ability to withstand the loss of Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong without having to call upon John McGinn and Callum McGregor, two players Strachan was being urged to include, illustrates a pleasing strength in depth. “That shows you how strong that area is,” noted the manager.

“If we have another two out we can call on them. It couldn’t have been easy for Barry 
Bannan either.

“He must get that media thing where everybody is clamouring for other players when he turns up,” he continued. “But I think that’s always going to happen. You want your local guys to get picked first.

“I think that happens with the Anglos more often. Even back in my day – there is 
actually more pressure on the Anglos to play better. Because what happens with an Anglo is that, if he plays badly, he 
disappears for two months – you don’t see him.

“A home Scot can play badly,
score two goals the next Saturday and everything is good again. If you don’t play well it lingers for two or three months. A home Scot can score two goals against Hamilton Accies on a Friday night and be a world star again.”

Winning both ties in a competitive double-header doesn’t come naturally to Scotland. Having not achieved this for a decade until last month, they now need to repeat the feat within a matter of weeks. Strachan pointed to the remarkable spirit within the squad.

He had the unwelcome task of informing Hibs’ Steven Whittaker he was the one player not required to get stripped on Thursday night.

“He took it brilliantly, it never affected him, he was in the dressing room talking to players,” revealed Strachan.

Then there was the sight of Brown and Armstrong, injured for these games but still very much a part of the squad. They turned up together in Scotland sports gear and sat near the substitutes.

“They were sitting in front of the guys ready to go, it’s good stuff that,” noted the manager. “Every bit helps. Every bit of camaraderie.”

The key element in this campaign has been the impressive ability to keep going to the wire, even if it does have health implications for those watching. Five of Scotland’s seven goals scored at home have arrived from the 86th minute onwards. Yet we have to be alert to the irony that the latest goal of all Hampden goals could be the one that keeps Scotland at home next summer – Harry Kane’s stoppage-time equaliser for England in June.

Slovenia’s doggedness at their own Stadion Stozice – they’ve yet to concede a goal in Ljubljana in four previous home ties during this qualifying campaign – means tomorrow night could be another occasion when patience is paramount.

“You never know how you are going to win, I said that to the players,” said Strachan. “You have a system which stops teams playing against you hopefully. But then we give them the freedom of their imagination to go score goals on their own.

“When the game starts do we think Kechi [Anya] is going to go flying down the wing and put it in for Chris Martin? I don’t think many of us had [a notion] of that happening. That’s the beauty of it.”