The Nations League is a trial for Scotland manager Alex McLeish and his backroom team: in every possible sense. If his team do not do enough against Albania on Saturday ahead of earning victory in their final group game at home to Israel three days later, they will not top their group and so miss out on a play-off slot for Euro 2020. In that event, McLeish and assistants Peter Grant and James McFadden will be convicted in the court of public opinion. It would then be impossible to see them remaining at liberty to continue in their posts. Never mind that by then they will only have had ten months and ten games – a mere four of them competitive – to make their imprint on the national side.
Grant doesn’t feel a sense of injustice about being placed in this dock. Across his 35 years in football, he has witnessed enough to know that the severest judgments can be arrived at on the basis of the most modest evidence.
The 53-year-old has arrived swiftly at a few such conclusions himself along the way since his playing days with Celtic and Norwich gave way to a spell managing the Carrow Road club. Within a year of doing so in 2006, he decided it wasn’t working and left. Later on, as a lieutenant to McLeish in December 2012, the pair parted ways with Nottingham Forest only 40 days after taking over. Meanwhile, after following Tony Mowbray to Celtic as assistant in the summer of 2009, he was required to follow him out of the door when the Englishman was sacked ten months later.
The ebullient Grant is well versed in football’s transience and therefore what is on the line for the Scotland coaching staff following the horrendous 2-1 defeat in Israel last month. A result that, in part, undid the good work carried out with the encouraging 2-0 home win over Albania with which Scotland began this mini-campaign.
“That is football,” said Grant of the rapidly-approaching judgment day on McLeish’s second Scotland spell. “Down in England you have three games a week in the Championship. If you don’t win two of them then you could be out the door a day later. That is the nature of the beast now.
“Listen, that is modern-day football. But you can’t plan for that. All you can plan for is the next game when you are in charge, how long it goes on nobody knows. It is the same as your football career. I used to say every day is a prisoner because that is the way it is: you never know. At Scotland we have these boys turning up and it is fantastic for them because you never know when it I going to end. So you have to take it on and grasp it with both hands, with all your enthusiasm.
“We have to bring that to the young players. Look at John McGinn. He was struggling with an injury the last game and nobody even knew because he was so desperate to play. Villa were questioning whether he would be fit in a few days and he was ‘No, I will be ready in a couple’ because he was desperate to play. That is what you need round your group. We don’t go shouting and singing and dancing about that but that is the kind of character you have around your group.
“When we see that that galvanises us to try and get it right, to make sure we don’t get the type of performance we got against Israel. That is all we can do. You learn from the last one and we have got to make sure we get the next one right. Football is day to day, that has never changed. Now you can sign a contract in August, you know that at least you are staying until Christmas, years ago you could get sold in a day. For us it was daily. You’d get put out the door and someone else would be into replace you. We have always lived under that pressure. That has always been the case with Celtic, Rangers and Scotland and that will never ever change.”
Grant believes that McLeish’s time in charge of Rangers, which was both successful and torrid, ensures he has the gumption to cope with the flak and move forward. He is there with McFadden to support him as best they can to allow him a clear head to plot a successful path.
“We’ve been around each other long enough,” said Grant, who was at McLeish’s side when the led Birmingham City to a first major trophy with League Cup success over Arsenal in 2011. “It’s so important that at times you keep the noise away. I’ve been the same myself – if you listen to everything, your head ends up all over the place. Human nature’s like that but sometimes there has to be a reality check and it’s good to sit down and talk about the football.
“We go over the game time and time again – sometimes probably too much. The biggest problem is that we’re supporters as well and we’re desperate for the country to do well. That’s when it hurts a little more. You want the players to succeed and get the chance to qualify for something this early in their careers. It would live with them forever.
“Alex and I have had success and failure and we have an idea of how to deal with both. When you’re successful you’re preparing for it not going right so you don’t really enjoy it. We have to manage both sides.
“He’s big enough and ugly enough to look after himself. He’s done Rangers and Scotland before and when you’ve done that the pressures are the same. The nation wants you to do well and when you don’t do well the pressure comes with it.”