It was the day after the roof had caved in, metaphorically speaking at least. Alex McLeish was at pains to stress the qualifying campaign remains retrievable and Scotland’s young team can recover from a bruising defeat by Kazakhstan inside the covered Astana Arena.
However, he isn’t helped in this attempt to convince the Tartan Army things will get better by a quirk of the calendar which reminds us it’s now a year to the day since McLeish’s second spell in charge of the national side began in earnest, with a 1-0 defeat by Costa Rica. It is patently apparent things aren’t getting any better. Another year takes us to the Nations League play-offs, scheduled for March 2020 and reckoned – before the abjectness of Thursday – to be a form of job security for McLeish. Not any longer.
The dismaying 3-0 defeat by Kazakhstan, the lowest-ranked team to beat Scotland since Fifa’s method of rating teams was implemented in the early 1990s, is a game too far for many fans, a humiliation too deep.
People’s interpretation of a misstep against San Marino, tomorrow evening’s opponents, will differ. Is it anything less than a multi-goal victory? Cyprus, after all, hit the bottom seeds for five on Thursday. One thing’s for sure, McLeish can’t afford to test the Tartan Army’s already frayed patience, with 4,000 of them augmenting the 600 or so who travelled to central Asia.
McLeish could win in San Marino and still be fighting for his future next week, such has been the intense reaction to Scotland’s latest defeat. The reversal is McLeish’s seventh loss in 11 games and despite the step forward that was the win over Israel, which secured top place in their Nations League group, the manager’s position is now being seriously debated once more – as must happen after an all-time low. McLeish is treating this latest crisis as a test. Can he bring Scotland back from the brink? Many are arguing he shouldn’t be given the opportunity. McLeish contends that coming out fighting is all he’s ever done.
“It’s in my genes” he said. “Of course, it is hard. I never feel I am on a hiding to nothing. I still feel it is a fantastic challenge. If we can do it now from this setback it will be the greatest ever after everyone telling me it is the worst ever, that’s what I have to believe.
“I have been a punter before and have had a lot of anger. But time is the healer.
“I’d like the players to be remembered for never giving up, like the rugby guys. This is now a challenge for a lot of these guys who have suffered this defeat, as well as me.”
He tried to use this rugby analogy at half-time to inspire his bedraggled side after they slumped on to the dressing room bench to hear what the manager had to say, with Scotland already trailing 2-0 to early goals. McLeish implored them to think of the Scottish rugby side who were feeling similarly small at Twickenham a few days earlier.
Trailing 31-7, Gregor Townsend’s side rallied to stage the best comeback ever seen in rugby history to draw 38-38, having led going into the final minutes. Stand-off Finn Russell later revealed a half-time argument between him and Townsend helped spark the remarkable rally.
It might be that something similar was required in the away dressing room at the Astana Arena. Unlike their rugby counterparts, a callow, inexperienced side, in which James Forrest was the veteran, did not have the personality to impose themselves on the proceedings.
Scotland lost another goal within six minutes of the re-start and fell to dismal, potentially ruinous defeat. It doesn’t necessarily follow that a team whose first and only booking does not arrive until the 84th minute is less than completely committed, but on this occasion it did seem as though Scotland had given up the ghost long before the end.
“We had a chat at half-time,” said McLeish. “We tried to get a spirit into them which the Scottish rugby team showed last week. If ever there was a time to do it was now, in the second half. But we could not raise the game. And we huffed and puffed a little bit and they scored a killer goal.
“Their three goals were incredible, really good. OK, the one that breached the defence, maybe we should do better. I think we lost one through a cheap throw-in – we talked time and time again about the fine detail of the game and we lost one of the goals direct from a throw-in, though I think he took the throw-in about 20 yards from where the bell went out.”
It is possibly unfair to judge the likes of Oli McBurnie, debutant Liam Palmer, pictured below, and Oliver Burke, whose return to the team had created such a stir, on outings such as Thursday, when Scotland were chasing the game for all but six of the 90 plus minutes.
But McBurnie, for one, looked far below the level required while Burke looks how he looks for Celtic – potentially very exciting, but a long way from the finished article.
McLeish said Palmer had acquitted himself well. “I do not think Liam did too badly,” he said. “At the same time we do not talk about individuals – it was just a horrible result for everybody.” It was a night that invited McLeish to return to the drawing board. It also underlined how he cannot afford to delve too deeply into the pool of auxiliaries – even if they are at least willing, unlike others.
Scotland do not have the luxury of coming to ‘agreements’ with the likes of Cardiff City and Bournemouth to allow players to miss a game because of the nature of the surface. There’s a clear problem with applying pressure on players but the esprit de corps built up during Gordon Strachan’s reign appears to have evaporated with McLeish forced to combat multiple call-offs at every turn.
He was unaware just how momentous his team selection against Kazakhstan had been: not since the 1970s have Scotland sent out such a youthful team for a competitive fixture. It might be another 40 years before a manager feels bold enough to do so again.