But as Scotland suddenly toiled against their hosts at the Ta’ Qali stadium on Sunday night Gordon Strachan was transported to the scene of one of his bleakest moments as a manager. It’s already over ten years since Celtic came a cropper against Clyde in the Scottish Cup but the wounds remain raw for Strachan, who feared having to field another barrage of criticism as Scotland struggled to respond to being pegged back by striker Alfred Effiong’s equaliser on Sunday.
“It’s one of those moments when you see your life flashing in front of you,” reflected Strachan yesterday. “That was a Clyde v Celtic moment, when I had a midfield of [Neil] Lennon, [Stiliyan] Petrov and Roy Keane. And I [still] got the blame for it!”
Strachan was aware of having too little currency with the Tartan Army to survive another grave disappointment. Despite handing two players their competitive debuts, despite a line-up most seemed happy with prior to kick-off, he would have been the figure to blame, again.
The supportive and forgiving reaction after Scotland’s last competitive victory – a 6-0 dead rubber win over Gibraltar, a few days after their Euro 2016 fate was sealed – would have felt as long ago as it now is, 11 months.
While he was careful not to go overboard with delight – he was the first to note Malta finished with only nine men – he felt the result warranted some satisfaction. Scotland are not good enough to treat 5-1 away victories as commonplace. Just as Scotland are not always known for high scoring wins, Malta have a reputation for avoiding being on the wrong end of them.
Despite their lowly ranking, currently 176, they are regarded as hard to beat. So Strachan was within his rights to do some crowing, reminding reporters Croatia had only won a Euro 2016 qualifier 1-0 in Malta a few months earlier. It will be interesting how England fare a year from now at the same venue.
Strachan was cheered not just by the victory, but also the manner of it. His players were required to dig themselves out of a hole. Strachan, too, deserves credit for thinking practically in the stifling heat. He admitted responsibility for navigating Scotland out of a potential crisis weighed heavily on his shoulders.
Drawing 1-1 with Malta is certainly a perilous place for any manager of an international team with ambitions to qualify for a major finals. But when it’s on day one of a new campaign many were feeling gloomy about it any case, it’s especially unwelcome.
Strachan could sense the tension and noticed how it was affecting players fearing the next day’s headlines: “End of the World” was one possibility, “Maltese Dross” another.
Fans harrumphed while reporters toyed with match reports painting depressingly early bleak picture of Scotland’s chances of qualifying.
“I thought we started the first 20 minutes great then you get that goal against you and you go ‘woooah’,” he reflected yesterday. “I said to the coaching staff: ‘They’ll take a wee while to get over this.’ So we sat down at half-time and said: ‘This is where we are, this is what we have to do.’”
He refused to panic. “What people were probably shouting was ‘make changes! Make changes!’” he said. “Which ones? ‘Oh, I don’t know. Just make changes!’ We are the ones that have to go ‘right, what are we going to do here?’
“We didn’t change it in terms of personnel, just the shape of it,” he explained. “And it is a shape we normally play, tighter together in midfield. But we were so stretched out that [Darren] Fletcher and [Barry] Bannan did not have someone directly in front of them to pop the ball off to.”
Strachan kept Chris Martin on when it might have been easier to withdraw the striker at half-time, as many wanted. Martin, replaced at the interval on his full debut against England, might have struggled to recover from another such disappointment. In any case, he didn’t deserve to be replaced. Asked by Strachan to be a bulwark allowing Oliver Burke and Robert Snodgrass, pictured left, to run off him, he did not do much wrong. The manager later described Martin as “the landing point”.
He stayed on and scored the goal that changed things. Even Strachan expressed some sympathy for Malta’s red cards – “to be fair, they got two players sent off, which wasn’t great for them” – but they were not the turning point. Certainly not the second one, which was shown by referee Yevhen Aranovskly to Luke Gamblin in time added on.
The first, which formed part of a double blow that saw Malta fall 3-1 behind after Snodgrass’s penalty, was undoubtedly harsh on defender Jonathan Caruana. But with Scotland having edged ahead again a few minutes earlier, the visitors seemed well positioned to take charge in any case.
Scotland can now approach their only home fixture left this year, against Lithuania next month, with a degree of relish. With three points and five goals already on the board, another victory would put Scotland in good heart prior to what could prove to be the pivotal game of their campaign four days later, in Slovakia. The second seeded team in Group F proved their worth by holding England until the very last minute of time added on Saturday. Despite the groans emitted by the Tartan Army when news of Adam Lallana’s winning goal filtered through shortly before kick-off in Malta, Strachan was asked whether this might actually be a helpful result for Scotland, who many believe are playing for second place in any case.
“Sometimes in championships you want everyone else to draw apart from you,” he said. “Because if someone wins three points go on the board somewhere, if it’s a draw only two points go on the board somewhere.
“So a point goes missing and that’s better for you.”
Strachan clearly isn’t ruling out finishing top. After Sunday’s ultimately handsome victory, in a fixture most accepted was loaded with peril, why should he?