SCOTLAND assistant Mark McGhee has only once before travelled to the Balkans on football matters.
Ahead of touching down in Serbia for the World Cup qualifier on Tuesday that could cast the national team further adrift at the bottom of their qualifying group, a scouting trip to Macedonia for a Euro 2000 qualifier against FR Yugoslavia in 1999 was his only experience of more than just watching the game in that region.
McGhee made that spying mission on behalf of these sides’ group rivals the Republic of Ireland, then managed by Mick McCarthy. He found it an eye-opener in a wholly unexpected manner. “There was a guy who took me to the match,” McGhee recalls. “He looked at me very funny when I asked him what the score would be. He said, ‘it’s arranged’. I thought it had just got lost in translation until Yugoslavia were four up at half time. I just hope there’s none of that going on.”
Short of buying a win, it is increasingly difficult to see how Scotland are going to conjure up a victory in this new nadir of a World Cup qualifying campaign. Serbia have one win from the campaign, against Wales. The only hope is that the Novi Sad hosts are even more demoralised by their loss in the sporting war against Croatia on Friday than Scotland were in going down at home to the Welsh.
“Serbia’s match with Croatia was all-consuming for both countries. There are one or two things going on there…” McGhee says. “They have a lot of big players who are contesting league titles, cups and European competition at their respective clubs and on the back of that they’ve had to play a massive match in terms of qualification, but probably more important to the people in terms of rivalry for obvious political reasons. I’m sure that will have been a huge mental drain on them and we hope it’s something we can exploit.
“Their results have not been great. They got a fantastic win against Wales but other than that they’ve struggled a little bit. You wonder why that is and usually it’s a case of not scoring goals. We are very conscious of the affect Friday night will have on Tuesday night. Regardless, it will be a huge, huge game for us.
“Right now, we would have to consider any opposition a test for us. It will be a really difficult place to go and play.
“But it’s not a place we should go and fear. The crowds are not as big as you might have thought and they are certainly not hostile. A lot of the hostility in Serbia stems from the two Belgrade clubs. There is a lot of rivalry there but it shouldn’t really affect us.
“We had chances when we played them at Hampden, the game was there to be won. That’s something I will be reminding the players of in the next few days. Regardless of the overall performance it was a match we should have won. I remember Stevie Naismith having a great chance on the counter-attack. Listen, it’s not a game we should be fearing. We have to take encouragement from the way we played against them at Hampden.”
Encouragement is not to be drawn from anywhere else in these troubled times, alas.