Gordon Strachan focused on Scotland's task against Malta
By the end of 2016 Strachan was on the brink, waiting for the Scottish Football Association to reassure him of their backing. His side had suffered consecutive 3-0 defeats by Slovakia and England following a bitterly disappointing home draw with Lithuania.
The Scots even slumped below the Lithuanians in the group last November as Strachan’s approval rating dipped as low as it’s been. But he stayed on, bolstered by the SFA’s eventual backing and his own faith in himself and his players.
A return of seven points from Scotland’s last three games has re-ignited qualification hopes. “I don’t know if I’ve been vindicated, I don’t look at things that way,” he said yesterday at Hampden. “I just get on with it.”
Strachan is seeking to inspire Scotland to consecutive wins in a qualification double-header for the first time in a decade with victory against Malta tonight.
He has even hinted he might stay on longer. Or at least he won’t leave the manager’s post without a great deal of anguish. The Tartan Army hope he departs with no regrets and in some considerable glory after leading Scotland in next summer’s World Cup finals – if that’s when he goes.
“I enjoy what I’m doing and I wouldn’t give it up lightly,” he said. “Watching the England game [at Wembley] I thought we’d done so many things right. It would’ve been different if it had been a shambles.
“When you look at it, England had more chances in the 2-2 game than they did at Wembley. It was three headers. The goalie’s not made a save. There were a lot of things that you thought were all right.”
On his future after next month, he said: “I [really] have no idea.” Strachan’s current contract runs until the end of the current campaign. We could be entering the final weeks of an era that started just short of five years ago. Or we might be reaching its crescendo.
“Listen, I just get on with it,” said Strachan. “I have got to say, I just love working with these players. Players re-energise you, absolutely. People think it works one way, but it doesn’t. It works the other way. They make you feel young and enjoy it. Over the last three years I have learned a lot more about bits and bobs and systems and things. It has been a great learning period for me as well.”
“They are a good group of lads,” he added. “I love being in their company, absolutely love being in their company.”
As Strachan has noted, it’s the team who have dragged themselves from “a bad place”. But it’s not the team as such. At least it’s not the same players. It’s remarkable to note that against Lithuania on Friday Andy Robertson was the only survivor from the 1-1 draw when the teams met at Hampden last October.
None of the six Celtic players who played in Vilnius had started that earlier fixture. The idea of a constantly evolving team was underlined last week by news 18-year-old Celtic full-back Anthony Ralston, pictured below, had been invited to train with the squad because Strachan wanted to see him play.
No one needs to be reminded that this was how Liverpool’s Andy Robertson, one of the stars of Friday’s victory, got his international start.
Strachan asked the then teenage Robertson to come along to training before a game against Croatia four years ago and was soon shown why excitement was building around the left-back.
“I asked him to do one thing and he did it with ease,” remembered Strachan. “I thought: ‘That’s not bad’.”
Time will tell whether Ralston’s career will take quite the same trajectory. But his presence last week is evidence that things might be getting better. Strachan is hopeful but realistic. “I think to make us even better we need to get stronger in certain areas,” he said. “That’s up to the youth team football and wherever we are [with that], the 19 and 20 year-olds. It’s unfortunate we are stronger in certain areas and not others.
“Matter of fact we had Anthony Ralston in this week training with us. I’ve never really seen him live, so we had him in and that was nice.”
Strachan’s now glad he stayed on as manager. Twice in the last two years he’s been on the brink – the first time because he was considering leaving on his accord, and the second time after successive 3-0 defeats by England and Slovakia brought Scotland crashing back down to earth following the promising start to this campaign in Malta.
But some momentum has now been regained. Scotland plan to have things back in their own hands by the final whistle tonight. Ideally, England will have defeated Slovakia at Wembley, which, together with a win over bottom side Malta, will mean the Scots can guarantee finishing second with two more wins against Slovakia and Slovenia.
But of course Strachan didn’t want to look too much further ahead than kick-off this evening. He’s rightly wary of Malta’s defensive ability.
England have most recently struggled to break them down. Surprisingly, only Scotland have gone to town against the Maltese. Even then they were aided by good fortune on the night – Malta’s Jonathan Caruna was sent off and Scotland were also awarded a soft penalty in the same incident.
Slovenia only beat Malta 2-0 at home in June, while the scoreline in England’s 4-0 victory on Friday in Ta’Qali disguised the away team’s struggles – they scored three times in the closing minutes.
“It takes a long time to break them down,” warned Strachan. Patience holds the key tonight. But we are reaching the stage where Scotland’s fate will be revealed one way or another.