So it’s finally arrived; the chance to get Scotland’s World Cup ambitions back on track at the place where I experienced one of the most bittersweet memories of my career.
That win in the Euro 2000 play-off 17 years ago next week still rankles because we came so close to cancelling out the first-leg defeat. Ultimately it meant nothing in regards to what we went there to achieve, but we still defeated England in their own backyard.
I am not saying for a second Gordon Strachan will pick the team I would choose, but I’d play Leigh Griffiths up front for starters.
I know much was made about comments from Gordon on Griffiths’ lack of physical presence, but if we go with a back five comprising centre-halves in Russell Martin, Grant Hanley and Charlie Mulgrew, with wing-backs Callum Paterson and Lee Wallace, then also throw Robert Snodgrass into the mix, there’s six guys around 6ft tall. So we shouldn’t have a problem physically or with set pieces.
Griffiths is better than the other options for getting in behind the defence and working down the sides. He has sharper movement in my opinion when we get ourselves into the final third.
Another reason is, should it be John Stones and Gary Cahill as the centre-back pairing for England, they will prefer to play against someone who wants to back into them – like Chris Martin or Steven Fletcher. Griffiths doesn’t stand still, he moves and provides a constant threat.
We would have banks of five and four – a midfield of Robert Snodgrass, James McArthur, Scott Brown and Matt Ritchie – behind the lone striker. I’d keep Darren Fletcher on the bench at the start – another tough call. If we can be solid then it permits taking that bit of a risk in playing Griffiths. I would also encourage our two wider midfielders to come in behind Griffiths when in possession and allow our full-backs to offer width.
Matt Ritchie can also provide some width and get at the defenders. He is a different player to what I was; maybe I was a little bit more direct, but he can still provide us with quality from wide positions.
In the 1999 game I had a little bit of a free role. It meant I could drift along the front line. When we are in possession of the ball, I’d like to see Ritchie and Snodgrass be allowed to do that too.
Snodgrass in particular can conjure something up from nothing. He has come back from injury a bit quicker than people expected and scored a wonderful goal on Saturday for Hull against Southampton by getting himself into the box.
If we don’t lose the game it means we have not lost ground on England. A point would not be a disaster. But we can’t afford to lose the game if we have aspirations of winning the group. That’s not to say we shouldn’t set out to win. But it has to be done the right way.
We were 2-0 down from the first leg in 1999. We had to be a bit more cavalier then. I have watched that game back and listened to the post-match comments by Ray Wilkins, Graeme Souness and Bobby Robson; we outplayed them, we didn’t just outfight them, we outplayed them. Souness makes that point. If you’d looked at the two teams on paper, nobody would have expected that.
I am not saying we are going down to outplay them this time, but I think England will be under a lot of pressure. They are at home, dealing with the high expectation levels of more than 80,000 fans.
They have a new manager, who wants to impress. They might open up and play in quite a cavalier fashion themselves. Which is why I’d like to see a Scotland formation which provides protection but also allows a balance and licence for attacking play when we win possession of the ball. We need to get into areas where we can impact the game, and that involves being brave on the ball. I think a three centre-halves system will allow us to fan out and push our full-backs wide and pin the English midfield back.
In my opinion the current England team is not as good as the team we faced 17 years ago which included David Seaman, Tony Adams, Paul Ince, David Beckham, one of the best English midfielders they have ever produced in Paul Scholes and a strike force of Alan Shearer and Michael Owen.
I can still remember being in the vast Wembley changing room. It was pretty keyed up, as you can imagine. The hairs still stand up on my neck just thinking about it now. We were all going around totally wired, every player in that room was pumped up. We knew we’d get bombarded as we walked from behind the goal; that long, long walk from the tunnel at the old Wembley.
As we entered the arena we heard the noise but all we could see ahead of us were Scotland fans and it was bedlam. It made my chest swell. We lined up and our national anthem was booed loudly. It made you want it more. I am sure the same will apply tonight, with 14,000 away fans – probably more knowing the Scots!
If we get at least a draw at Wembley this time, we have Slovenia next and then again England at home. Don’t tell me we could not beat Slovenia and then take care of England at Hampden. Can you imagine the atmosphere then?
Highights of England v Scotland will be shown on Sky Sports 1 at 10pm.