The island of Malta was awarded a medal for courage after refusing to capitulate in the face of a, mainly, Italian bombardment during the Second World War. But as Gordon Strachan prepares his Scotland team to face Antonio Conte’s side in the Mediterranean archipelago – for a friendly wherein they are perceived as patsies to prime the Italians for participation in Euro 2016 – the national manager isn’t of a mind to think he could merit a badge for bravery if his players emerge unscathed from the Ta’ Qali Stadium this evening, or from the similar assignment that awaits them against Euro 2016 host nation France in Metz next Saturday.
“Is it brave [to take these games]?” he pondered at Malta’s national stadium last night. “You have to play good sides in international football and it’s exciting rather than brave. The young players and the experienced guys that we have get to play against world-class players.
“There are a lot of reasons why we took these games. One, we felt it was attractive. If you wanted players to feel up for it and looking forward to it, it had to be big-name teams and we’ve got big-name teams. It’s big players they’re playing against and it’s a great test for the youngsters and the older members of the team.
“I remember going with Scotland in 1983 to play Canada in three games in Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto – it was torture. I think we’d played 67 games that year at Aberdeen and everything had been competitive.
“You don’t want to go round the world, leave your family for two weeks, to play a non-competitive match. That’s not easy and it’s one thing that gives me the benefit over a few people – coaches, sports scientists – they don’t know what the feeling’s like at this time of the year.”
Strachan was feeling like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world than the Ta’ Qali Stadium at the end of what became an agitiationfest of a media conference for the 59-year-old. It is a venue to which Scotland will return in September to play the Maltese in what will be the opening game of their World Cup qualifying campaign. Not that he was particularly enthused about fast-forwarding to his team’s next competitive confrontation as he was invited to do so by a local journalist. “It’s preparation for the whole group. It’s not one game, we are preparing for the whole group. That’s the reason we took this: we knew we would have some young players coming along to play against top sides [which] is the best way to find out about your younger players.
“From my point of view, you look to see if they are comfortable first of all in the squad. Are they adaptable? Because some come from systems that are a bit different to the way we play.
“And then the real test is can they stand up and enjoy the game? Are they comfortable in the game, can they enjoy the game, can they take something from it? It would be easier for us to take [on] a lesser team but would we really have learnt a lot from that? Because the last couple of years we have played some tremendous sides and we have to be prepared for that.”
The Scotland manager has a number that he could find out about, with suggestions Hearts’ Callum Paterson, Nottingham Forest winger Oliver Burke, Rangers wide man Barrie McKay and, possibly Swansea full-back Stephen Kingsley – all of whom are still eligible for the Scotland under-21s – could be given game time. Only Burke, with an eight-minute run-out in the March friendly win at home to Denmark, has earned a senior cap.
John McGinn, another of the under-21s in the squad, is likely to be rested but Strachan was in no mood to divulge whether any among his band of youngsters could earn a starting place. Owing to the limited options at right-back, Paterson would seem most likely, although he appeared to pull up with a back problem in training at the stadium last night. A question from me as to whether we would see youngsters feature against Italy, modified to include “starting”, was gently batted away by Strachan. “I’m sure you will. Did you sneak ‘starting’ in between me saying “sure” and “you will?” he smiled.
Earlier, the knotted frown was all too much in evidence. It presaged mild rebuke and downright hostility. The former was the consequence of an Irish journalist asking if Scotland’s grim record of only one win in 10 attempts – and that 41 years ago – might be improved upon with Conte’s side likely to be far from full strength and currently undergoing the sort of confidence crisis it seem obligatory for them to suffer on the eve of major tournaments. “I don’t think many teams have a great record against Italy. I don’t think any team over the last 50 or 60 years has a good record against Italy,” he snapped.
This reaction was tame, though, when set against his anger at a Belgian journalist daring to ask whether his country [Belgium] were missing out not playing Scotland because in doing so Italy could be said to be coming up against a team that play in a similar style to the Republic of Ireland side that both have been drawn against in the forthcoming French finals. Does the way of playing of your team compare with the Irish, the brave Belgian petitioned.
“I think you are confusing me with someone who cares what the Irish team look like,” he said. Then came an admittedly garbled second attempt: is playing you preparation for Italy for the Ireland game. “I’ve no idea. I couldn’t tell you. You’d need to ask Mr Conte,” Strachan said, before he could tolerate the line of inquiry no more. “As I walked up here today I thought, ‘let’s talk about Italy, let’s talk about Malta, let’s talk about Scotland’, especially, but I had no preparation for Belgium questions.” Preparations for an exacting contest against Italy are more than enough to occupy Strachan’s thoughts.