He has decided to re-engage with a challenge some would argue is among the hardest in football. However, Gordon Strachan is far more comfortable planning how Scotland will reach their first finals since 1998 than what he might otherwise be doing, which is playing in pro-am golf tournaments.
The Scotland manager took his time to assess his options and speak to those close to him before committing to another two years in October, shortly after the team’s failure to qualify for Euro 2016.
Many pondered whether he had the stomach to sign on again for another qualification campaign, particularly with Scotland required to occupy one of the top two positions in a tricky World Cup qualifying group also containing England, Slovenia and Slovakia. Tonight in Prague, where Scotland face Euro 2016 qualifiers Czech Republic in a friendly, marks the beginning of a journey that is hoped will end in Russia in the summer of 2018.
Strachan actually believes the first steps there have already been taken. In the selection of a squad outlier such as Tony Watt, the promotion of Kenny McLean and re-recruitment of Matt Phillips, who earned the last of his two caps in 2012, the manager is embarking on an “inquisitive phase”.
Such tweaks made prior to the start of competitive action in September against Malta can be the difference between success and failure, which is how he must accept his first full qualifying campaign ended. It was reasonable to wonder whether Strachan would not prefer to be walking the fairways than resuming the inevitably fraught task of delivering Scotland to the finals of a major tournament.
Yesterday started with news one of his three strikers, Steven Fletcher, was unfit to travel due to illness. But Strachan could not have been any firmer – he would far rather be boarding charter flight ST 4848 to Prague than standing on the first tee somewhere like Wentworth, where he endured such agony last year.
“You must be joking,” he said, when asked whether he wished he had chosen an easier life than to carry the hopes of five million plus people. “It drives me crazy playing golf, literally crazy. I played in that BMW thing [BMW Championship Celebrity Pro-Am] with Graeme Souness and Kenny [Dalglish] in front of 15,000 people – never again.
“I literally thought I was going to collapse with stress. Seriously. This is far easier. I understand what I am doing here, I like who I am working with. I didn’t like 15,000 people waiting to see where I was going to slice the ball. That was not funny. I could not do that for a living.”
Unlike his golf game, Strachan is certain Scotland’s improvement is reliant only on some minor adjustments. After reviewing their Euro 2016 qualifier games in Group D, he concluded Scotland’s fate hinged on the failure to complete eight key passes in and around the box.
“I can put the whole campaign down to eight passes,” he insisted. “We had chances when I looked at it again – eight passes inside the box to set someone up for a goal, and we didn’t complete. Had we completed six out of those eight passes we are in a different place. That’s how close we were.”
He then uttered something that should make the ears of every Tartan Army member prick up. “If we add a wee bit then we qualify,” he said. This ‘wee bit’ extra is a sadly elusive quality, though Strachan hopes he might discover a portion of it in the mercurial talents of former Celtic striker Watt, who is expected to make his international debut this evening in the Letna stadium.
Strachan decided to select two different squads for the friendlies with Czech Republic and Denmark on Tuesday because it means he can run the rule over the greatest number of players. Dundee goalkeeper Scott Bain and Wolves midfielder Kevin McDonald are also in line to make their international bows tonight.
“We are looking at different things and trying to make sure we have something to add,” said Strachan. “There is of course more to it than small margins. But if we can find better players who can add things, then great. I think it was that close [to qualifying]. We all know it was that close.”
Strachan was gratified that those asked to replace call-offs almost yelped with delight on receiving the news, despite not being included in the original squads. “It is not easy at this time of year to show great enthusiasm,” he noted of Ross McCormack, who has not played for Scotland since the friendly win over Poland two years ago, and Birmingham’s Paul Caddis. “When you speak to them on the phone you wonder how they are going to react after not being in the initial squad. They could not have been better.”
If anyone is still left in any doubt about how committed Strachan is to bring some overdue joy to the Tartan Army, he has turned down all offers to work as a pundit at the Euro 2016 finals this summer. He will be going, but only in order to watch England and Slovakia, Scotland’s World Cup rivals in Group F. According to him, a television analyst role “was never going to happen”.
Strachan has a promise to keep with a group of people he vowed to make “very proud” in a statement after signing an extension to his contract late last year.
The supporters are uppermost in his thoughts as another round of fixtures begins.
“I have met a lot of fans I have to say and they are quite happy with the progress we are making,” he said. “There might be one or two [unhappy] but in general, from the Tartan Army especially, I know they are quite looking forward to going again.”