With an absence of top-quality, established centre-backs, Grant Hanley, pictured below, and Russell Martin have been selected by the national boss as the preferred pairing. A work in progress, Martin accepts there will be the odd mistake and momentary lapses in concentration, but he also believes that sticking with them will give them the chance to develop.
“The boys are comfortable with trying to be braver on the ball,” he said. “You want the football and don’t want to be chasing for 90 minutes. The more we get the ball, the less chances they’ll have at our goal. If you ask any of the lads, that’s the way you want to play in any team or in any league that you’re playing in.
“You want as much of the ball as you can. The gaffer has given us the freedom to do it, knowing there will be mistakes, but everyone makes mistakes, we’re human beings. It’s about still having the courage after you’ve made a mistake to get on the ball and play. Regardless of the scoreline, we’ve done that.”
Martin, who plays in the English Premier League with Norwich City, was paired with Blackburn’s Hanley in Croatia, helping earn a clean sheet, as Scotland won and helped restore the spirits of the nation’s football fans. Although defeat followed at Wembley last month, the performance attracted plaudits, a feat replicated against a Belgium side bursting with quality on Friday.
That was Martin’s first taste of the national stadium, an experience he described as “amazing” despite ultimately conceding two goals.
“I found my first Hampden experience amazing,” he said. “The atmosphere and to play in a place with such history about it was great. I’ve worked hard to get to this stage of playing for Scotland at Hampden and it’s finally come true. Apart from the defeat, I really enjoyed it and I thought we did OK.
“We obviously lost 2-0 and sometimes you have to hold your hands up. The second one, the game has been a bit stretched and we’re trying to get something out of it and it gets tough. But I think we’ve worked really well together. We’re different players but I think we complement each other quite well and hopefully we keep getting the chance to build on that.
“If you get something steady going on in the centre of the pitch – and I thought the two lads in front of us, Charlie [Mulgrew] and Broony [Scott Brown], were magnificent out there – then we can keep getting better.
“That’s three games me and Grant have been together, so it’s been fairly new and in training we work quite a bit on it. But hopefully we’ll keep getting the chance to build on it and get a clean sheet in the next one like we did in Croatia.”
Culpable for the second goal against Belgium, Hanley has no problem with taking responsibility and admitting his mistake. He hopes he learns from it, and quickly considering the next challenge is looming large, with Tuesday night’s match in Macedonia, Scotland’s penultimate in this World Cup qualifying group.
“We said in the dressing rooms, out of the three teams that we’ve played – Croatia, England and Belgium – that Belgium were the best,” said the 21-year-old. “We think they could do well in the upcoming big tournaments. The difference is that they punish mistakes and took their chances. I’ll hold my hands up to the second goal. I tried to read it, but tiredness was setting in.”
With the hope of a sojourn to Brazil for next summer’s World Cup long-since quashed, the remaining games of the campaign are all about progress and for Martin and Hanley that means limiting the individual errors and building an even better understanding ahead of the quest for Euro 2016 inclusion.
“This group was gone a while ago,” said Martin. “It’s about building now for the next qualification process. But for morale and confidence, as a team and a squad, we don’t want to finish bottom. That’s for sure. It’s important for us to go out on Tuesday and get a result to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
For that, Scotland will need another stirring rearguard action and bravery on the ball. “We’re building an understanding and with every game we’re getting a little bit stronger,” Martin added. “Hutts [Alan Hutton] has been brilliant considering he’s not played a club match in however long. He was superb again. He’s joked with us this week that he’s going to retire from club football and just concentrate on internationals!”
In sticking with Hutton at right-back, his inexperienced centre-back pairing and Steven Whittaker out of his preferred berth, at left-back, Strachan is taking a leap of faith but that’s the kind of bravery he wants to see in his men. In the past, it’s the stuff more successful campaigns have been built on.