AS SCOTLAND swaggered towards the conclusion of Tuesday night’s match, they were hailed by a chorus of olés as one player after another found a team-mate.
As the final whistle sounded they were on another attack, with six of Gordon Strachan’s men swamping three Croats.
That signified how things have changed in such a short time and proved the perfect example of the kind of tactical and mental positivity which reigns in the Scotland camp these days, according to the reinvigorated squad.
“In the last couple of matches we’ve seen major improvements and to finish off the group on such a high is really encouraging,” said midfielder Barry Bannan, who has been offered a new lease of life at club and international level and is using it to impress. “We now can’t wait until the next campaign begins.”
The prevailing belief now is that the Euro 2016 qualifiers will bear fruit in a way no other has since Scotland booked their place at France 98. A matter of months ago, that kind of thinking would have been enough to invite ridicule. Two defeats out of two to the lowest-seeded country in the group caused the most harm and, while two victories over the team seeded highest could not offset the damage done in the early days of the campaign, they offered hope of brighter tomorrows.
“Obviously there is regret at the way the campaign started. But, as the group has gone on, we have got stronger and stronger and we’ve got a really strong group now,” added the Crystal Palace player.
“If we had won both Wales games we would have been in second place so there is regret. It’s important we start the next qualifying campaign the way we have finished this one. We need to start well and give ourselves as good a chance as possible.
“The boys were talking after the [Croatia] game about how we wished the European Championship qualifying campaign was starting right now. The way we are playing at this moment in time we would fancy our chances of beating anyone. Our confidence levels are high, we’ve picked up some really good results and we are playing well. We really can’t wait for the next qualifying campaign to come around and we will be approaching that with plenty of confidence and optimism.
“In a way it will be difficult watching the World Cup because you think of what might have been had we started the group better but it will also be good to watch and learn.”
Watching from the sidelines was something Bannan experienced a lot last season. A regular place on the bench was replaced with a seat in the stand towards the end of the term and it was obvious that only a move away from Aston Villa would lead to more regular first-team action. The 23-year-old got a transfer to Selhurst Park in the summer and earned a recall to the Scotland set up, impressing in Macedonia and then midweek against Croatia and even although he missed a penalty, he is claiming an assist after Steven Naismith followed up to score the rebound.
“If we can keep everyone fit then I think we’ll have a great chance of qualifying from the next campaign. We’ve still got some quality players to add to the squad. Shaun Maloney is a big player for us and he was injured and we’ve still got both Steven and Darren Fletcher to come back as well.”
But, given what was on show on Tuesday, even with a few big names missing, this Scotland squad has the capacity to be proactive. Having devised a couple of systems which work away from home, Strachan’s men suggested that they have also grasped the nuances of one that can deliver at home.
“There were a lot of attacking players on the pitch against Croatia,” explained Bannan. “I think there were four of five attacking players including the strikers and the midfielders and it’s encouraging to play such attacking-minded football. You want to push forward and try and create chances and score goals rather than defending and waiting until you concede a goal before trying to push forward. Now we are attacking teams from the off and it’s definitely helping.
“Every manager is different but I enjoy playing the way the gaffer wants us to play and the other players also enjoy it and it’s showing on the pitch.”
There was little of that joy earlier in the campaign, with an out-of-favour Bannan unable to influence matters. It was a frustrating time but one he hopes is behind him now that he has teamed up with Ian Holloway at club level and Strachan on the international stage. “I’m enjoying it. It’s good to be back playing again. Every game I’m getting is a bonus for me, I’m getting fitter and fitter and hopefully I can kick-on. I was just glad to get out because I was stuck and I wasn’t progressing.
“I worked with Ian at Blackpool. He’s similar to Gordon Strachan because he likes to play attacking football so I’m getting the best of both worlds now.”