It was 19 years ago today when Kevin Gallacher sent Scotland on their way to what was once a regular and well-worn path to the World Cup finals.
Three minutes before half-time at Celtic Park, when Latvian goalkeeper Oleg Karavajevs could only parry John Collins’ long-range shot, Gallacher pounced from six yards out to head Scotland in front in their final qualifier.
Gordon Durie wrapped up the victory after the break as Scotland secured second place in their group and automatic qualification for the 1998 World Cup finals in France as the best ranked runners-up.
It was a campaign which saw the Scots win all five of their home qualifiers, losing just once in total over the ten-game series and conceding a miserly three goals.
As Gallacher reflects on the cycle of failure which has kept Scotland away from any major tournament finals since then, he pinpoints the absence of that defensive reliability as a key factor. It was evident again when Lithuania plundered the lead on the counter attack in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Hampden, which many already regard as a potentially fatal blow in the latest quest to return to international football’s main stage.
Gallacher believes a lack of trust in their ability to shut out the opposition has been inhibiting the natural attacking instincts of Gordon Strachan’s squad.
“We always seem to find it difficult when we have to break teams down like we did on Saturday,” said Gallacher. “We have been a counter-attacking nation for years. The squads that we have had in the last five or six years have been very good in an attacking sense, but we don’t do it because we are worried about the back door.
“When you worry about the back door and losing goals, you forget about scoring goals. In the second half on Saturday, we threw the kitchen sink at Lithuania and they couldn’t handle it. So why can’t we start like that? I don’t think teams could handle us defensively if we did.”
The former Scotland striker, back in his home town of Clydebank yesterday to help make the Irn-Bru Cup quarter-final draw, believes Chris Martin has been unfairly criticised for his contribution on Saturday and believes the Fulham forward should retain his place up front against Slovakia tonight.
“I felt Steven Fletcher did well for us in that position in the last campaign, when he got a few goals, but I also thought Chris did well against Lithuania. People don’t realise what a hard job it is when you’re up there on your own.
“You’ve got to lay things off for team-mates while trying to get on the scoresheet yourself and it doesn’t always fall into place that way.
“The fact he has other strikers to choose from is a good headache for Gordon to have and, away from home, you’re going to need someone to hold the ball up.
“Leigh Griffiths, for me, is more of a runner, someone who looks to get behind defences and maybe he should have started against Lithuania ahead of Chris. But I’d expect Gordon to start with much the same players against Slovakia and that will mean Chris getting another shot at it. Personally, I would stick with him. It suited him more in the second half at Hampden when he had players running behind him.
“That didn’t happen in the first half and people target the striker for criticism because he’s the one paid to score goals. However, when you’re asked to do a specific job for the team, it’s a little different.”
Gallacher, who scored nine goals in his 53 appearances for Scotland, also feels it is too early in the campaign to question Strachan’s status as manager.
“It was only a couple of months ago that most of us were talking about how well he’s done for Scotland,” added the former Dundee United and Blackburn Rovers player. “We have only played two games in this group and people are talking about his position. Gordon has done a good job and he’s trying to carry it on. Fingers crossed he can now get the right results on the pitch.
“Nobody likes taking the kind of stick which has been coming his way but that is what happens in football. I still think his heart is in it. I still saw a little glint in his eye when he was being interviewed after the game on Saturday, even though he wasn’t happy.
“He would have been happy with the response in the second half. Okay, the result didn’t pan out the way we wanted it but we came back to draw which shows good team spirit.
“The result means the little molehill that we have got to get over is starting to become a mountain again. But the early games in any group are nervous. You get those out the way and then you can get results.
“The England game at Wembley next month is coming at the point where you don’t want to have a draw to Lithuania and a defeat to Slovakia on your mind. We will have the next month to worry about it before we play England. You don’t want that in the back of your head.
“I certainly don’t want it in the back of my head, because of all the stick I’m going to get living down there! I would rather be going the other way, on the back of a win in Slovakia, knowing that we can go to England with our heads held high with an opportunity that they might actually be fearful of Scotland going down there and beating them.”