An international season that kicked off with nothing to show from a bright performance in Dortmund ended on Saturday in Dublin with what possibly ranks as Scotland’s poorest showing of the campaign.
But they seized what could yet prove a priceless point in their efforts to qualify for Euro 2016 from Group D. No ground has been lost. Indeed, judging from comments heard in Ireland following Saturday’s 1-1 draw between Republic of Ireland and Scotland, the visitors all but clinched a play-off place by avoiding defeat against Martin O’Neill’s limited side.
Strachan insists Scotland wish for more than this. Of course, it is still possible that third place could secure an automatic berth at next summer’s finals. But because of its cut-throat nature, it seems unlikely that the country with the best record of all those third placed finishers will emerge from Group D. Nevertheless, Scotland remain in a strong position.
Thoughts now turn to next season and the qualifying campaign’s resumption on 4 September in Georgia. Gordon Strachan can reflect on a job well done as he heads for his own summer break. Six competitive matches, 11 points. Only a single defeat at the hands of the world champions, and even that outing fired rather than dampened the Tartan Army’s hopes.
A perhaps better-than-expected point in Poland and that crucial win at Celtic Park against Ireland has now been followed up with a point from the Dublin re-match that could yet prove significant. It means that if Scotland and Ireland tie on points in the final analysis, the former are the ones who will prevail.
Strachan spent yesterday accentuating the positives, as well he should. He still believes Scotland can do better than third place, where they currently sit. “Poland got a good result on Saturday too [against Georgia] but we are still in the mix for an automatic place, absolutely,” he said. “We took a point from Poland and now we’ve taken a point in Ireland. If you had said we would take four points from the Republic and four from Poland then you would be delighted.”
He was affronted when someone wondered whether he felt parts of Saturday’s game saw Scotland plumb depths not seen since the home fixture with Wales in the last qualifying campaign. That performance is often cited by Strachan as being the worst there has been in his managerial career, stretching back to Coventry City in the late 1990s.
“Oh no, it never got as bad as that!” he exclaimed, with reference to the opening half an hour against Wales in March 2013, when Scotland looked like they had barely seen a football before.
“It didn’t get anywhere near that. But was it as bad as we’ve passed the ball since then? Well, Norway away wasn’t good – I didn’t like that – but then again that was only a friendly. The Ireland game was a bit different.
“I think the performances have exceeded my expectations,” he added, reflecting on the six games to date in the group. “Sometimes you get through in life by scraping a goal away from home somewhere or winning a match you didn’t deserve to win. But it’s not been like that for us.
“I think we’ve probably taken the right amount of points but the performance levels have been magnificent.”
He acknowledged that Scotland were lax in their passing on Saturday. He conceded that he might have tried to be too clever with some personnel decisions. “Maybe you can go overboard when you think about the team selection,” he said. “Maybe sometimes you can put too much thought into it.”
According to O’Neill, Scotland were “bawling instructions left, right and centre – they didn’t come to terms with our system of play”. It’s true that this was a far from vintage Scotland display. Strachan’s gambles could not be viewed to have been successful ones.
But then the system he had proposed playing against the Irish was not given a chance of succeeding due to the slack passing that characterised Scotland’s first-half display.
For the second group game in succession, he was forced to tinker at half-time after Scotland were fortunate to be only one goal down. Again, Matt Ritchie took the rap, withdrawn in order to make space for Anya, who took barely a minute to make an impact when he took in a pass from Shaun Maloney and laid it back into his path. The Chicago Fire’s shot eluded Shay Given after taking an almighty deflection off John O’Shea’s backside. Is Scotland’s luck finally changing?
“It was more a feeling of relief than anything else,” said Strachan. “There was also a sense of satisfaction that we could do something about changing it from giving the ball away so much and being a wee bit better in the second half.”
They might not be able to overcome such a poor start in Georgia, although O’Neill, clearly concerned for his own side’s prospects, wondered whether Scotland’s hosts in their next match will be sufficiently motivated. He agreed that, in terms of the group’s final standings, the outcome of Scotland’s trip to Tiblisi, where Ireland won 2-1 in September, is of great significance.
“They’ve just lost 4-0, although Poland are very strong at home and probably you would have expected that,” said O’Neill. “But I think [one] aspect is that it depends on how the Georgians are now feeling. They probably think the campaign is well and truly finished and there might not be a big crowd at the game. For us, on the opening day, it was pretty well packed.”
Aiden McGeady’s late winner on that occasion proved how everything can change in an instant. Of course, Georgia has already been a cemetery of Scottish hopes in the not too distant past. Scotland travelled there on the crest of a wave after a 3-1 win over Ukraine had looked to set them on the way to the Euro 2008 finals in Austria-Switzerland.
No should rest on their laurels after another good result, this time against a formidably physical Irish side. Perhaps reasoning that he did not want to leave any ill-feeling hanging in the air over the summer, Strachan resisted any urge to criticise the referee, whose laissez faire attitude on Saturday frustrated the fans and players on both sides.
O’Neill even suggested Strachan should have been happy with the performance of Nicola Rizzoli, since it was the constantly moaning Scotland player Steven Naismith who he wrly claimed had handled his duties for him.
“I’ll just leave that with them,” Strachan shrugged. “You see what it is and you get over it. I’m not going to get involved in it. I’m just happy how we have performed now that the season is finished.”
These were the words of someone who knows nothing is to be gained by looking back. Everything lies ahead for Scotland.