Gordon Strachan: World Cup campaign has taken its toll

Many feared Scotland's World Cup qualifying campaign going from bad to worse. In fact ,it's gone from bad to a whole lot better. But Gordon Strachan admits there's been an emotional cost on the way.

Gordon Strachan believes Scotland's players have proved they can deal with pressure.

The manager has revealed the campaign has taken a toll – the extent of which he won’t ever let on because he says it’s no one else’s business.

But the stress has been a price worth paying when players applaud each other in the dressing room after games, as happened following Monday’s win over Malta and the victory in Lithuania four days earlier.

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The six points accrued from these fixtures mean that, for the first time since 2007, Scotland have won both ties in a double-header. It’s the first time they’ve done so in a World Cup group since 1997.

What it all means is that Scotland are very much alive in the group again. The aim at the beginning of these two latest rounds of fixtures had been to see Scotland’s fate transferred back into their own hands.

In that respect it was mission accomplished, with the wins giving the Scots a springboard from which to try and secure a play-off place. Attention now turns to next month’s final games against Slovakia and Slovenia – with the first being crucial to Scotland’s renewed hopes. Strachan can sense – and indeed hear – how morale has improved within the squad.

“It’s pleasing when you are looking at guys in the dressing-room after and everyone is clapping and looking forward to the next game with each 
other,” reflected Strachan.

“They are talking and giving each other a round of applause – so that’s good. I’m pleased watching them and seeing the staff enjoying themselves.”

Circumstances were rather different in the bowels of Wembley in November. Reporters shuffled around as Strachan was saying his farewell to players. Nobody – journalists or players – knew if they’d be seeing the manager in this capacity again. No one knew if it was farewell until next time or farewell full stop.

But Strachan survived the uncertain hours and days afterwards, when 
his future had appeared in major doubt following the 3-0 defeat by England.

He returned home and drew succour from his family, friends and own self-belief. He then resolved to make sure he exuded confidence and belief when walking back into the team HQ at Mar Hall in March, before Scotland’s next assignment against 
Slovenia.

It was that game when Scotland revived their fading World Cup hopes, Chris Martin, pictured right, ignoring the audible boos that greeted his arrival as substitute to score the late winner. Strachan stressed there were no sports psychologists, no gimmicks, involved in the re-boot. He said: “It’s not anything you do differently. You walk in there and you make sure you are the leader with your coaching staff.

“You make them feel comfortable about themselves. It’s not one 
talk – it’s the whole thing. It’s hard when you are losing games. Trust me, it’s hard.

“That’s the time you are tested as a football player and as a manager and coach. I didn’t call for a sports 
psychologist. We didn’t start drinking more water. We were all right, we did the same things. Believe me.”

Strachan accepted it had been a tall order to get back into the 
qualification frame – and it remains one. But he’s satisfied he’s now found the right blend of players to try to pull 
it off.

“I would never have said this was impossible, but it was going to be hard,” he said. “But they have shown they can deal with hard, that they can deal with pressure.”

For Strachan, too, it was taxing. A hero with Scotland as a player, the danger was he might become estranged from the Tartan Army.

“You have to remember that the worst thing in football is talking about yourself,” he said. “It’s the worst
thing. I can spend all night here 
talking about anyone else, but not 
me.

“I find it difficult and I don’t want to go into what my thoughts are, my thought process.

“There were a couple of things [that kept me going],” he added. “I like working with the players and I like my job. I also think ‘right, where do we go? What’s coming up? Who is progressing?’”

Now Strachan must contemplate his options for Slovakia and Slovenia. After sending out an unchanged side against Malta, he will pray his current favoured XI will steer clear of injury in the coming weeks.

Only three of those who featured on Monday played in the 3-0 defeat in Slovakia last October – Kieran Tierney, James McArthur, Leigh Griffiths and Grant Hanley.

“It was a strange game,” recalled Strachan. “We got to positions where we wanted to get and the final pass wasn’t good enough.

“Nobody else will understand that. We get there, that’s the plan, can we deliver it? No. The first hit at goal actually goes in the back of the net for them.

“I have to step back from that and say… hmm. Once you walk away from games if there is nothing there, if there is no hope, that’s 
the time you go, ‘wow, that’s it [finished]’.”

But, even amid the rubble of such a comprehensive defeat in Trnava, he sensed the situation was retrievable. It is to Strachan’s credit that Scotland’s qualifying flame burns brighter now.