Then came a victory in Croatia that seemed to rekindle the priceless romance of following a competitive national team. Starting with that zipper in Zagreb 11-and-a-half months ago, Gordon Strachan’s side have played eight, won five and drawn one. On Wednesday they will be hoping for their fourth consecutive away victory, and fifth straight clean sheet when they face World Cup-bound Nigeria in a friendly at Craven Cottage.
Strachan, though, who yesterday attended to an affair of the heart with his daughter’s wedding in London, doesn’t go a bundle on picking the bones out of what seems a skeleton for success that he has put together.
“I have no idea,” he says when asked what was behind the roots of his year of progress. “We’ve never really analysed what we have done and where we have gone. We all know that it’s better when we have all worked when we haven’t got the ball, but we have to do more with the ball.
“And all it is, is you get a couple of decent results, it kind of snowballs. And then you start thinking ‘yeah, I can’t wait till the next game’. Instead of ‘oh no, there’s another game coming in a few weeks’. I think we are now saying ‘I don’t care who you are but bring it on’. You might have more talented players than us but we will make it hard for you. That is the kind of team we have got just now. They are not saying ‘oh no’, they are saying we might not have this one or that one, but as a group…
“That is what we are trying to do just now, trying to find the best group we can have for any game. We hope to get 30-odd that we can pick from. To get to the point that when we get together, no-one is going to let us down in terms of their behaviour, training or selfishness. They can’t be selfish, they need to give everything to the squad. If we get that, then can improve on one or two areas, then we will be good.”
How good, or focused, Nigeria will be on Wednesday is open to conjecture. Stephen Meshi’s squad will only gather from across the globe on Monday, and the Scotland fixture appears squeezed in as a leg-loosener for the West Africans on route to the pre-World Cup training camp in Houston, Texas.
The current African Cup of Nations holders – who last February won the competition for the third time – will be appearing at their fifth World Cup finals of the last six contested when they face up to Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran in group F. Twice making it to the last 16, they rate their chances of a third appearance in the knock-out stages.
Currently 44th in the FIFA rankings, 22 places below Scotland, there is a smattering of British-based players in their squad. Celtic’s Efe Ambrose offers a Scottish dimension in a pool that contains such as Chelsea’s John Mikel Obi, released Newcastle forward Shola Ameobi and Victor Moses, on loan to Liverpool from Chelsea. Stoke winger Peter Odemwingie has earned a recall, as has Joseph Yobo, who was on loan at Norwich from Fenerbahce last season.
The 33-year-old centre-back hasn’t played for his country since the Africa Cup of Nations success but is the most capped individual in the country’s history, with 95 appearances for the Super Eagles. Other strong performers that are dotted throughout Europe include left-back Elderson, who moved from Braga to Monaco in January, and CSKA Moscow frontman Ahmed Musa.
Mikel has been linked with a possible move to Inter in recent days. The 27-year-old made more appearances from the bench than starts under Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge last season, with his manager springing a surprise by used the defensive-type in an attacking midfield role.
“I’ve never seen him do much of that,” Strachan says. “You have to see their squad and who the coach has picked because it changes so rapidly. But I think it will be the serious time for them now. What you’ll get is pace, physical strength and a lot of them play at a good level.
“So if we’re not as physical as them then we have to move the ball about so those physical challenges aren’t there. We stick to what we’re good at. It will be good. We’ll try to outnumber people in certain areas, use our tenacity, our fitness levels. We do it in a different way to how they do it. They play at a slower pace than us, physically stronger, you don’t take on an opponent at what they are good at.”
Strachan will look to use the week to integrate new call-ups such as Derby County’s Chris Martin and Craig Forsyth, and Aberdeen pair Mark Reynolds and Peter Pawlett, in to the set-up. He is relaxed about this week’s game being the last preparatory game before Scotland travel to Germany for their Euro 2016 opener in September. He has compiled a list of 40 players that can “go and beat two or three men and whack the ball in the net” playing in the UK... and none of them are Scottish. That won’t change in a couple of months.
“Maybe we can develop them over the next two or three years but at the moment every goal we score has to be as a team. I hope I am wrong, I hope folk like [Inechi] Anya, [James] Forrest and [Shaun] Maloney can do it. That makes a big difference. You just look at players like Mata, Oscar, Sherla, Willian, Silva, Nasri, Hazard, Suarez, Ozil, Rosicky, Wilshere, Cazorla, Lallana, Rodriguez, Rooney and Eriksson and that is all in the English league. These are guys who can go and beat someone and do something. They are big players in any team now. We have to work harder than most players to score, I would say. We have to do more without the ball than we do with it. So that is what we will be concentrating on.”