Signs of progress, just no happy ending for Gordon Strachan

Ultimately, Gordon Strachan's tenure will be remembered for two failed qualifying campaigns. Picture: John Walton
/PA Wire
Ultimately, Gordon Strachan's tenure will be remembered for two failed qualifying campaigns. Picture: John Walton /PA Wire
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“With Scotland, you can make millions of people happy,” said Gordon Strachan, as he pondered his first competitive outing as Scotland manager against Wales.

“The problem is, you can also make a nation miserable.” Nearly five years on, Strachan’s
gone, having failed in his 
stated first aim – “let’s see if we can get to one of these finals,” is how he put it, shortly after his unveiling.

As for making millions of people happy, he probably failed there too, although there were certainly some moments. One of them was a week ago last night, when two of the substitutes he sent on with time ticking away combined to create a late winning goal against Slovakia to maintain World Cup qualifying hopes.

These were scenes that Hampden hadn’t witnessed for, well, all of four months, when Leigh Griffiths provided joy upon joy with two late free-kicks against England. The fact Harry Kane scored an even later equaliser, one it later emerged was the difference between Scotland reaching a play-off place and not reaching it, means many will be conflicted when looking back at that sun-drenched early evening. It’s as with Strachan’s entire reign. There was some good, some bad. He made people happy some of the time.

But that wasn’t enough. Not for him, not for the Scottish Football Association and the majority, it seems, of supporters, whose desire for change was recognised by the SFA board and probably by Strachan himself.

He hasn’t been chased out of the door, as was reflected in the respectful tone of yesterday’s statement. But he has fallen victim of the mood for change that tends to develop when someone has hung around as long as he has – five years in January, Scotland’s fourth longest serving manager.

This mood can eclipse reason. Even though Scotland are on the back of a seven-match unbeaten run, and there is evidence that Strachan is getting it right, there is also the always attractive suspicion that something better might be out there.

To place Strachan’s reign in context, it’s necessary to recall where we were when he was appointed, on the back of a World Cup campaign that had been declared moribund after just four games under Craig Levein. Strachan’s first midfield, for a friendly v Estonia, included Chris Burke.

One of the reasons why Strachan’s arrival was so warmly welcomed was the expectation he would turn to striker Jordan Rhodes, regarded as having been criminally underused by Levein. If anything, Strachan was even less taken with Rhodes, who played just eight times under him. It was an early sign of his stubbornness.

Strachan wasn’t sure about Rhodes as a team player, once evoking Billy Pirie’s name, a striker he played with at Dundee, when making the point that goals aren’t everything. And Strachan was perhaps vindicated in his treatment of Rhodes, since the player is featuring mostly as a substitute for his current side, Sheffield Wednesday.

He has also been vindicated
in his persistence in using Chris Martin, one of Scotland’s best performers in the most recent campaign.

Strachan was always his own man, right from the very beginning. He recovered after a worrying start, when Scotland resisted feeling the new manager bounce. Strachan started off with two competitive defeats, with the first, at home to Wales, featuring perhaps the worst performance of his reign until that ill-fated second half in Ljubljana five days ago.

But there are two other results that ought to haunt him. The first was losing 2-0 in Georgia in his first full campaign in charge, a result that cost Scotland dearly in their bid to secure a play-off at least. The other was a 1-1 draw at home against Lithuania last year. Again, these dropped points went a long way to meaning Scotland were again frustrated in their bid to reach a play-off in Strachan’s second full, and final, qualifying 
campaign.

It means he joins Berti Vogts, Walter Smith, Alex McLeish, George Burley and Levein in failing to get Scotland back to a major finals. There’s no disgrace in that. Scotland’s recent woes, as well as those of the Netherlands, United States and even the supposedly much improved Wales, underline just how difficult it is to 
qualify, especially for a World Cup.

But Strachan has left the legacy of a team that’s improving. That couldn’t be said of Levein, certainly. Strachan has helped turn Leigh Griffiths into an international footballer, too late perhaps for some, and was unafraid to promote left-back Andy Robertson soon after his breakthrough at Dundee United.

Scotland also took the lead twice at Wembley in a friendly before losing 3-2 although they were well beaten by the same opponents at Celtic Park following a strength-sapping 1-0 win over Republic of 
Ireland, another Strachan highpoint.

He’s also ensured his successor has been left with options in midfield, where Stuart Armstrong has emerged as a leading player and, perhaps, as a contender for the captain’s armband should Scott Brown take Strachan’s departure as a sign to re-trigger his international retirement.

Where Strachan couldn’t find a solution was for the seemingly eternal centre-half conundrum, but then he can’t just produce a couple of 6ft 4in international class defenders from nowhere.

That’s getting dangerously close to the territory of genetics, an area Strachan unwisely
visited in the aftermath of Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Slovenia. It’s regrettable that his Scotland tenure has ended amid some ridicule. He doesn’t deserve that.

For the most part he was a good Scotland manager, who got Scotland playing better football. He just couldn’t get them to the finals of a major tournament, which is why it seems a sensible decision from all involved to look elsewhere.