ENVY-OVERLOAD should really grip Gordon Strachan when assessing the differences between his Scotland team and the Croatian side they face on Friday.
Yet, what makes Strachan covetous is not the fact that his men will find themselves up against a country now rated fourth in the FIFA rankings – and one teeming with confidence that the World Cup finals in Brazil beckon – just as they teem with glitterati footballers. More than anything, the Scotland manager craves one of the basic simplicities taken for granted by his Balkan counterpart Igor Stimac.
“It seems to be the same group of players and you think ‘they’re always there’. They are like a club side now and that’s what [I am] trying to achieve with us. Not to exclude anybody but you hope you get enough players where it is easy to pick a squad and it’s just a case of bringing two or three in and that’s where they are,” says Strachan.
Which is precisely why the home side’s starting XI for the World Cup qualifier in Zagreb is likely to feature two players with in excess of 100 caps and a further four who have topped 50 international appearances. These players haven’t racked up these impressive figures by going into semi-retirement for family reasons, then flying out to Las Vegas, asking to be excused for their weddings or pulling out because of mystery ailments.
“They’ve got a real pride in their country, a real drive to be a new country,” the Scotland manager says. “They have the mentality that it is an all-year-round game. They think we will just play, whether we get a two-week break it doesn’t matter, we just play. They are all top players, they get to think like that. If you want a really good holiday, say nine weeks, then be a bad player and be in a bad side. Seriously. I remember that managing Middlesbrough, nine weeks break we got that first year. Nine weeks? That is some going, fully paid as well you know. [Branislav] Ivanovic was away in America playing with Chelsea in friendlies, there is not a chip with him where he says ‘this is tiring’. Their mindset is that this is what they do. They are all-round footballers. In fact, their mindset is that we don’t drink, we don’t play golf, it is just football. Playing the game isn’t hard work for them, it is the norm.”
The norm for Strachan is having to wait until the last minute. “You pick a team and say ‘we’ll have that one there, him here’ and then you go ‘oh, they’re no here.”
Crucially, Croatia play the game for prizes, and success can be a surefire means to engender commitment. In contrast, playing for Scotland appears to have become akin to a trip to the dentist for some, in part because it is 18 months since a competitive win was last posted – and that came against the mighty Liechtenstein. The only remaining motivation for Scotland in the three remaining games of this campaign – with Belgium at home and Macedonia away to follow – is the tall order of claiming two points to avoid dropping into pot five for the 2016 European Championship qualifying campaign.
“It is partly us, partly if you remember rightly as a football player, your own personal pride,” says Strachan. “Leigh Griffiths walking off at the cup final last Sunday, it hurt and it hurt badly. We are hoping that everyone in our squad has that thing where it hurts if you are not winning.”
Mercifully, Scotland do retain a bedrock of players who want to do all they can to turn around the country’s fortunes. Griffiths, despite seeming to be feeling his ankle constantly at Hampden a week ago, proved he is one of those when he made a check call to his Scotland manager. “He does his own thing,” Strachan says. “He just phoned me and I said: ‘You spoke to the physios’ ‘Naw’. ‘You fit?’ ‘Yeah’. ‘You know when we are meeting?’ ‘Naw, but looking forward to it’. ‘Good. Smashin’’ And that was it. I said ‘you sure you are alright’, he said, ‘aye, it’s fine’. He’s never checked with anybody but he says he’s fine.”
Strachan can number players such as Scott Brown, James Morrison, Gary Caldwell, Jordan Rhodes, Grant Hanley, Shaun Maloney and Darren Fletcher in the be-there-if-at-all-possible bracket. Maloney may have missed a season’s worth of international caps because of injury, but this pained him, once describing each missed international as a precious cap chance opportunity he could never bring back. The fates have proved kinder to him in the past year and a half with 40-plus games for FA Cup winners Wigan in a run that has allowed for full recognition of his rare talents.
Not that Strachan, the Celtic manager with whom he enjoyed his best season at his boyhood club and who re-signed him from Aston Villa, needs reminding of these. “I’m always delighted for him. I’ve known him for years, speak to him a lot. His form is very good. It matches the first season at Celtic I had him and he won player of the year awards. I think he’s a fantastic player and a great lad. If you’re looking for examples of how you live your life and how you train, then he’s the man. If there are young boys coming in, they can just look at him.”
With Caldwell and Brown injury absentees, Strachan has still to decide on a captain for Friday, but would not place Maloney in the running. “I don’t know if he has the personality to be captain,” Strachan says. “He has it in terms of being an example of how to play the game but he’s a quiet, quiet fellow, although he changes when he goes out on the football field and becomes a personality. A lot of people are personalities on the training ground or in the dressing room but, when it actually gets to the real thing, it’s: “Where did he go?” There are a lot of talkers and shouters but he doesn’t do that. He does his work on the pitch.”
It might be almighty hard work in Zagreb but, heck, some folk have to want to do it to breathe life into Scotland as an international team. Of course, the vast majority do, but too many still do not. Strachan may care to remember who accompanied him to Croatia, and who really wanted to but couldn’t, if he ever does succeed in ushering in better days.