Alex McLeish sees Peru and Mexico as a challenge for Scotland

Alex McLeish recalls watching the dire defeat by Peru at the 1978 World Cup on television. Photograph: SNSAlex McLeish recalls watching the dire defeat by Peru at the 1978 World Cup on television. Photograph: SNS
Alex McLeish recalls watching the dire defeat by Peru at the 1978 World Cup on television. Photograph: SNS
The desperate hope of Alex McLeish will be that when his Scotland team play Peru on Tuesday he avoids the technicolour trauma that befell him when the national side met the South Americans at the 1978 World Cup.

The 3-1 pasting suffered by the Scots in their opening game of those ill-starred finals in Argentina was a jolt to the nation’s footballing psyche which had developed delusions of grandeur about the possibilities awaiting them in the jamboree.

For McLeish, watching on television as a fan, it was even worse than seeing England lift the trophy 12 years earlier, a dose of monochrome misery delivered to his living room.

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“I’ve been watching the World Cups since 1966,” said the Scotland manager. “I think that was my first one in black and white. It was probably worse watching us getting gubbed by Peru. We had gone with high expectations and then you realise that they [Peru] are not too bad a team actually. We find that out the hard way. I think everybody wanted to buy the Peru strip after that.”

The danger is that the understrength Scotland side that McLeish will be forced to field in Lima this week could be flogged in a manner akin to 1978.

In only the third game of his second spell in charge, McLeish cannot afford to think like that, even as he acknowledges his men will be the warm-up act for a Peru team bound for the World Cup finals,as they will be again on 2 June when Scotland face a Mexico side also heading to Russia.

“We are playing against two highly motivated teams,” the Scotland manager said. “There are a lot of new guys in the squad that I have. The motivation for them is obviously to win a Scotland cap, for some of them again, for some of them for the first time. I am sure that there will be immense pride in the guys that I am taking with me. We want the young guys to be as comfortable as possible, for them to feel the way they feel at their clubs.

“There’ll be a lot of new faces but it’s a fantastic experience and we’ll ask them to embrace it. We’ll be working with them in terms of their confidence levels and their approach to the game.

“The challenge is for the guys to show they can compete with two teams going to the World Cup. Spoiling their party. That is the motivation. We are Scots and when we are backed into a corner we look to come out battling and scrapping. If the guys grab their opportunity then it is a win, win.”

To do so, they have to adapt to heat and altitude and the unfamiliar approaches that follow from operating in such environments. These are among the myriad aspects that make the trip appear entirely ill-advised. Forced on McLeish, he is now obliged to talk up the tour. He at least appears on safer ground talking up the teams Scotland will be facing.

“They are highly skilful, they play at slow tempos in terms of possession, but in a flash they can turn the tide in terms of the speed aspect,” he said. “So, yeah, they have a different style of play. It is a fantastic opportunity for the new guys to learn from a different experience.”

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If there is any plus to the near two-week stint that the Scotland squad will have together, it is the opportunity for bonding. “I’ve got an ida for one or two things that I hope we can bring off,” McLeish said on that front.

These tour games will be meaningful to many players afforded opportunities that wouldn’t have presented themselves in normal circumstances. Johnny Russell is firmly in that bracket, the 28-year-old having experienced a career renaissance after moving to Sporting Kansas City in the MLS at the turn of the year. Russell has yet to start for his country, the last of his four substitute appearances for the Scotland senior side coming in October 2015.

“He’s got a maturity and experience now and he’s setting the place alight over there – and it’s no easy division he’s playing in in MLS,” said McLeish. “Some of the Mexicans are in there with him. Johnny joins us right in the middle of his season as well, he’s at his peak right now so I’m excited to see him in training and when he plays in one of the games. He’ll be a great option – he has good good feet, he’s quick and lively and I’m sure he’ll bring his confidence into the camp.” It will be much needed.