THERE is little in the way of new year cheer for Scotland’s fringe players that can be offered up by national team manager Gordon Strachan. His resolution for 2015 is to pare down the number of places available to senior performers in the squad – as much for their own good as anything else.
The coming year is shaping up as potentially the most significant for the national side since they last qualified for a major tournament almost two decades ago. November’s victory over the Republic of Ireland has made the possibility of Strachan’s men earning one of the two Group D berths that would progress them to the Euro 2016 finals in France a realistic one.
Group harmony and continuity of competitive performances have been pivotal to Scotland’s progress. That has led Strachan to some thinking about what he asks of experienced players he picks but who rarely play, and whether an extension of his decision to elevate in-form youngsters might be in order.
“There are about 18 you know are going to get picked,” said Strachan, whose side will next be in action when they face Northern Ireland at Hampden in a friendly in the week of the Gibraltar qualifier at the end of March. “Then there are another four, five, six places. So you’re looking at younger ones and newer ones we can have a look at. That’s what I will be concentrating on between now and then.
“My big difficulty with the squad is that we have 26, 27 and I feel there are some players who come along, leaving their families for ten days – a long, long time – and not getting on the pitch. That’s hard for them. I don’t want to lose them. I don’t want anyone turning up and saying ‘listen gaffer it’s great being here but I’m leaving my home for ten days and no’ getting on, can you give me a bodyswerve’.
“We’d maybe be better having maybe 20 and maybe four or five younger players who maybe don’t have families. I say to the guys who have families ‘I’ll give you a call if we definitely, definitely need you, rather than wasting your time’. It’s soul-destroying being in a hotel for ten days away from your family and not getting a strip on.
“That is one of the things you don’t realise until you become an international manager: to ask someone to come away for ten days, maybe from a couple of young kids, away from the missus, and not getting a strip on. So you think ‘we’ll try to get him on’. We’re maybe better saying ‘you’re a top player but I don’t want to see you just filling in space, I have young boys and it’s the be-all-and-end-all for them and they don’t have to leave their families’.”
The long periods between games mean the Scotland job affords Strachan plenty time to see his family and do his work away from the media, from his base in England or the Spanish villa he owns. The result is that the prickly, terse Strachan who showed himself at intervals during his four-year spell as Celtic manager has been replaced by a more chilled version. The fact he is now 57 years might also be a factor. “I would imagine I have [chilled], but if you stuck me back in club management it might be different.”
He posits that he may now be more avuncular in press gatherings because so are those putting the questions to him. “As a Rangers or Celtic manager you do feel that some are with you, some are against you. [As Scotland manager] I actually feel that generally everybody wants us to do well here. I might be wrong to think that but that’s the way you think. You can ask the Rangers manager, they might say ‘they all support Celtic’. That’s the mentality you can get in. You need to get out before you go nuts. You get this paranoia thing that everybody hates you.
“This is fun, sitting around talking football. It’s just the way it’s interpreted later on... But the good thing is I can disappear and not see it. I can only ask Darryl [Broadfoot, SFA head of media] to tell me if there are any lies going around.”
Strachan is also offering his thoughts on how the performance director position will be filled. As the SFA seek to drive down costs, it is likely Mark Wotte’s replacement will not be a direct one. “I’m offering my advice,” said Strachan. “I’ve said the criteria I think is needed for this Scotland performance director. They have listened to Walter [Smith], Andy [Roxburgh], and they will take it all together and say ‘okay we need someone who can do all this...’”