In the school playground before that momentous and clangingly intense series of World Cup qualifiers around the globe, my French friend Youssouf did his best to claim some sort of parity on the anxiety front.
I mean, he had worries all right but they were first world problems compared with the Scot wondering if the manager would pick the right team, whatever the heck that was, because none of us thirled to the Dark Blue cause could be entirely sure. And these worries were minuscule compared with the ones which came just a few days later for the follower of the thistle-breasted sodjers who was then wondering if the beaks on Hampden’s sixth floor would pick the right replacement sgt-major.
Youssouf is from Reunion, the French outpost in the Indian Ocean which has produced Didier Agathe, Laurent Robert and, most recently, Dimitri Payet who, my chum insists, somewhat sheepishly, has been part of the dilemma. “We have too many good players, especially in the forward positions, and the coach doesn’t know his best side,” he explained. The recent explosion of talent at Monaco, much of which has since been sold at vast cost, had exacerbated the issue.
Les Bleus are currently the most valuable side in international football, worth £1 billion, so what could possibly go wrong? And what had somehow gone wrong in Argentina to cause obituaries to be written for the career of Lionel Messi as the Albicelestes’ talisman with his team on the brink of missing Russia 2018? But there’s a limit to how much sympathy a Scot can distribute round Planet Football when his own men are gasping for air. You know, I love French flair and the Argentinian version even more, but for Gordon Strachan this was the semmit – nay, the summit – of his tenure as our World Cup dream-weaver and as it turned out, he took a flying heidie after the latest tragic 2-2 draw, officially our worst kind of scoreline.
We’ve failed in qualifying before and we’ve lost managers before but this felt different. Even Strachan’s sternest critics admitted he deserved a more dignified ending. And for every pundit who insisted, cheer up, there’s hope for the future and Craig Gordon is a part of that, there was another insisting that Strachan would have cause to rue the keeper’s knock-kneed reluctance to leave the comfort blanket of his goalline against Slovenia and earlier when faced with Harry Kane. Nothing wrong with our keeper’s genetics, of course, so his problem must lie elsewhere.
Strachan’s quip about us not being quite big enough was used to hang him. Come on, that was light-hearted, it wasn’t meant to be his last word on our failure, but because he’s always been so niggardly with his post-match analysis that’s what it became. Not that it matters much now, but every day afterwards a club manager backed his claim, some of them adding that Strachan’s coaching abilities could only be appreciated if you’d worked under him, ramming home the time-honoured gulf in understanding between real football men and punters/scribblers.
Were you really surprised by the remark? I wasn’t. In 2011 I interviewed Strachan when he was between jobs, asking him if he’d ever contemplate managing Scotland. He didn’t answer directly. Of course not. He told me how he thought he was still too young for the position, then riffed on the ages of man for a bit. Did I know his grandson had just started wolf-whistling his wife Lesley when she got down to her bikini? Did I know that taxi drivers often congratulated him on having a much younger better half who’s actually just two months his junior? And did I know that he didn’t know the exact age of his granny, “a wee squat wifie down the bookies in Lochend”?
He sounds almost French, doesn’t he? Or Argentinian. Prone to whimsy and flights of fancy. Maybe in those countries where they’re more prone to intellectualising the game, along with everything else, he’d have been hailed as a great football surrealist. Probably we’d have indulged his funny ways if Kane hadn’t scored, if the goalie hadn’t stayed on his line, if if if …
Argentina’s “problem” this qualifying campaign had been the same as France’s: an embarrassment of riches up front. Their goal connoisseurs had topped the scoring charts in Spain, England, Italy and the homeland but in the 19 qualifiers before the must-win one, 15 different attacking combinations had been tried – and two managers had gone. Meanwhile, on that fateful journey to Ljubljana Strachan must have been thinking: “Give me your Payets, Anthony Martials and Olivier Girouds. Give me your Sergio Agueros, Gonzalo Higuains, Mauro Icardis and Paulo Dybalas.” For one reason or another, these guys did not start the vital ties for France and Argentina. Kind of takes a bit of the heat out of The Great John McGinn Debate, doesn’t it?
Would McGinn, or Callum McGregor, have won us the game against Slovenia? In the build-up I thought one of them at least had to start; with hindsight I’m less convinced. I’ve gone through various contortions, mental and physical, and am now contemplating autocannibalism, a familiar Scottish practice. In the post-mortem everyone seemed agreed: if Leigh Griffiths had played from the start of the campaign we’d be on our way to Russia. The Griffiths of right now is irresistible, but have we forgotten the Leigh who was erratic in big games for his club in Europe and at Hampden? And another thing, said some: Strachan should have watched more domestic games, should have lived in Scotland. Well, do you know how parochial and couthie and don’t-burn-the-mince that makes you sound?
In the end France and Argentina got there. The French had to overcome Bulgaria – “The team of our nightmares,” said Youssof, “you must have one like them.” (Take your pick). And Messi responded to the charges of residing elsewhere and being “pecho frio” – cold chest – with a stunning hat-trick. Our little guy wasn’t so lucky and now we start over again. To the new manager we must wish him good luck finding the new Gordon McQueen, the next Martin Buchan – and enjoy living in Brigadoon.