Alex McLeish: Winning will bring fans back onside

Scotland head coach Alex McLeish. Pic: SNS
Scotland head coach Alex McLeish. Pic: SNS
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Alex McLeish understands what he is up against and he also knows what he can do about it as Scotland embark on their inaugural Nations League campaign.

The new-fangled competition offers Scotland another route into the 2020 European Championships and whether it is via this path or the more traditional qualifiers, the national coach is well-versed on the importance of delivering the major finals the country has been craving since 1998.

He knows that may be the only way to combat the apathy he believes has grown since his last spell in charge of the national side – and generating the kind of excitement that used to grip the Tartan Army ahead of manoeuvres.

“You are right. There is a perception of ‘Ach, we’ll not do it’ or ‘They’re not going to do it, again’,” admitted McLeish. “But the determination is to change that perception and the only way we are going to change it is by getting victories.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the relative rankings, they failed to do that against Belgium in the final warm-up match, on Friday, but the manner of the goals conceded in the 4-0 defeat did little to persuade fans that the recent problem of shooting ourselves in the foot had been resolved by the new man at the helm.

But McLeish says he has watched a rerun of the 90 minutes and took more positives than negatives from the match and insists that things can be different against Albania at Hampden tomorrow night. Describing the game as a “must win” he has backed his squad to deliver.

“We know at Hampden the players are going to have to raise their game, we don’t know how much of a crowd will be there, it would be brilliant for the lads if we got a big supportive crowd,” said McLeish. “It’s not as attractive as Belgium but it is a competition. If you look at our big Hampden triumphs, we have always had the 40-50,000 crowds. Hampden doesn’t look the same when that’s not the case.”

But with fewer than 20,000 tickets sold for the Nations League opener, it looks like the players will have to generate some momentum if they are to get that backing and dispel the negativity that has enveloped the national side following so many years in the wilderness.

“I think it has evolved into that,” McLeish said. “The only thing that can change it is us. That’s why working with the coaches, working with the players very closely, we are in agreement about how we want to play. We don’t want to park the bus on the edge of the box for 90 minutes. We want to try to play, we want to try to play out. I think we are still a work in progress in that we did it in training when there was no pressure, and on Friday night the Belgians were positioned exactly as we saw in the videos that we showed the players. They played out in training, no problem. But when it comes to ‘wait a minute, that’s an international superstar I’m up against and he might dispossess me…’ maybe those things kind of creep in. So, it’s about the confidence and empowering themselves. But they can do it.”

Individual errors again sullied things on Friday, contributing to three of the goals conceded. But if the passion is lying dormant in many fans, McLeish says it still burns within the players, who he claims will have learned lessons after being schooled by the World Cup semi-finalists.

“I can’t sit here and say we don’t need to win and it’s still experimentation time,” he said. “No, of course we want to win, and we must win. If we draw or lose, then for me, that is a bad start. It doesn’t mean you can’t rescue it, but we want to get off to a flyer at Hampden on Monday night.

“The players are annoyed with themselves about Friday night. Ryan Jack was caught on the ball, and it’s a goal [Belgium’s fourth]. It’s not maybe a goal at [domestic] level when you’re caught that deep in defence. But Ryan should be looking at that and thinking that he’s got to do things quicker at this level, and that’s an absolute fact.”

The determination to play out from the back also saw John McGinn caught on the ball for Belgium’s first goal and Charlie Mulgrew’s ambitious ball out of defence was pounced on for the visitors’ third. Despite the costly mistakes McLeish insists he is sticking with his gameplan.

“We want to pass it assertively, with a purpose, not being tentative with it,” he said. “I think [not doing that] has blighted the Scots over the last ten years and it’s something we have to make better. We have to persevere and not resort to just lumping the ball up the pitch because we don’t have a target man as such.”

McLeish knows other sides do have that option, noting how France and Russia used a big central striker to good effect at the World Cup.

“The Russians were fortunate in the sense they could bring big [Artem] Dzyuba on in the first game when they got an injury and the guy never looked back, he became a focal point for them. The French were a defensive team 
in the World Cup and won the trophy but [Olivier] Giroud was their focal point. We don’t quite have that and we have to play as fast as we can in terms of use of the ball, speed of the ball, passing of the ball and making the angles.”

Despite losing four goals and admitting he had feared at one stage that it could be ten, the Scotland coach was pleased with his back three of John Souttar, Mulgrew and Kieran Tierney, who he says were “vigilant” and “dovetailed nicely”, and with the system that pushed captain Andy Robertson on and utilised Ryan Fraser as the other wing-back.

But elementary errors still proved costly and the fact that this is not a new phenomenon is a major contributor to the dwindling levels of belief among fans.

“I’ve been keeping tabs on the national team obviously, I love my country, and I watched Gordon Strachan’s campaigns and there have been some great performances, and the defence in general haven’t played badly, but then there was always a killer moment,” said McLeish, noting that defeat in Georgia proved particularly costly for Strachan during the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign just as it had him for during his spell in charge of Scotland as he sought to qualify for the 2008 Euros.

“You look at Georgia, and the same with me in Georgia. There was [also] a killer moment in the Lithuania game at Hampden, and Poland at home too. Killer goals, and that’s what we have to eradicate. I have stressed that the loss of easy possession can have devastating consequences and the boys have never had a bigger lesson than that last night. That can be a good thing, it’s educational.”

But only if lessons are learned.