‘Scotland ready to go again, this is it for real’ - Alex McLeish

Scott McTominay tussles with Callum Paterson as Ryan Jack gets on the ball in Scotland's training session at Hampden ahead of the clash with Albania. Picture: SNS.
Scott McTominay tussles with Callum Paterson as Ryan Jack gets on the ball in Scotland's training session at Hampden ahead of the clash with Albania. Picture: SNS.
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There is a condition, still not medically recognised, known as the Sunday Night Blues. It would be understandable if Scotland fans were struck down by a dose of this last night.

The prospect of watching an unattractive clash with Albania on a Monday night at a half-empty stadium might well feel like an unwelcome chore, particularly given the current mood. Friday’s 4-0 defeat by Belgium was hardly the remedy for rallying weary troops.

And yet Alex McLeish is adamant. This is where it gets serious. Tonight’s inaugural Nations League game with Albania can be a new beginning. He woke up yesterday morning feeling the excitement – mixed with what’s certain to be apprehension – in his bones.

“We’re ready to go again,” he said. “This is it for real now. I can feel it already. I woke up on Sunday morning and said to myself ‘this is where it really begins’.

“We have done some experimenting, looking at different players. We have a big roster now should we need to call people up. But this is it. The guys have got to bring their best performance level.”

McLeish even thumped the table at Hampden as he sought to emphasise how important it is to change the defeatist attitude that appears to have taken hold.

“We have to change that perception!” he exclaimed.

“That’s blighted us for a long time. There is more hope than expectation. Our goal is to change those people saying ‘ach we won’t do it’… The only way we can do that is to win. We have to go and beat Albania, we know that. We know this is where it starts.”

He accepts the start to his second spell as international manager has not helped re-ignite passions. Four defeats out of five matches since he took over in February have served to deepen an apathy that set in long before McLeish’s return.

In fact there’s not been a night to rival the atmosphere since he was last in charge of a competitive fixture at Hampden, against Italy 11 years ago. To further conjure up memories of that intoxicating occasion, when Scotland went toe-to-toe with Italy in a final Euro 2008 qualifier in front of a well-oiled capacity crowd, is the identity of the man in the opposite dugout this evening.

Christian Panucci scored Italy’s winner after a contentious free-kick decision, one irking McLeish to this day. Now in charge of Albania, Panucci will return to the place where he broke Scottish hearts.

McLeish has already cast his mind back to that November evening, shortly before he left his post to join Birmingham City as manager. He will try to rekindle the spirit of 2007. “I’m standing out there looking around the stadium thinking ‘it will be fantastic to get to those days again’,” he said after a training session at the ground yesterday.

Such nights seem more precious given the uncertainty over Hampden’s future – a decision is expected in the next 72 hours – together with how unutterably grim visiting the stadium for Scotland games tends to be now. Four down after just an hour against Belgium, Friday night was just the latest of these experiences. McLeish has gone from having the best win ratio of any Scotland manager in his first spell – he won seven matches out of ten – to enduring one of the worst starts.

He points out that successful journeys can start inauspiciously. It sometimes takes time, and heartache, to build projects of substance. “The Russian coach [Stanislav Cherchesov] didn’t win in seven games, then had a fantastic World Cup finals,” he pointed out. “I take inspiration from things like that. Michael O’Neill won one in 18 at the start with Northern Ireland and he turned out a national hero. Who knows, this time next year…?”

This time next year, barring disaster, McLeish will be in the midst of a more conventional qualifying phase for Euro 2020. Scotland might already be in a very favourable position to qualify if they have topped their Nations League group. It’s likely just four wins could stand between Scotland and a place at the next European Championships.

McLeish revealed a players’ WhatsApp group had been set up by skipper Andy Robertson spelling out the importance of tonight’s clash to every member of the squad. “The guys all know what’s at stake,” he said. “This team is quite young. They’re very keen to give the fans something to shout about. The thing is to get behind them. I know they really care. If we get a good result – and we’re going for a win – then things will pick up.”

The manager has covered a lot of ground to get to the point where it finally counts for something. He blooded nine new caps in Mexico and Peru, adding another one on Friday in John Souttar. He has also wrestled with an unfavourable fixture list, most of which was in place before he was announced as Gordon Strachan’s replacement. Three out of the five opponents faced so far have been in the world top 20. Tonight represents not only his first must-win match, but also his first, on paper, straightforward one.

Not that Scotland are in a position to go into any game feeling over confident. McLeish stressed the best way to respect Albania is by playing at an optimum level and with the kind of intensity shown against Italy over a decade ago.

“Albania got to the Euros which is something we haven’t done,” he said. “So there is nobody who can disrespect them.

“The biggest way we can show our respect to Albania is to play at our top level and swarm all over them.”

Sadly, the motivation to do so may have to come from within. It might be the start of a new campaign but the Tartan Army, following so many disappointments, reserves the right to feel jaded.