No synthetic '˜torture' for Gordon Strachan and Scotland now

Gordon Strachan has warned Scotland not to be 'spooked' by the synthetic pitch on which they will try to regain World Cup qualifying momentum against Lithuania next week.

The synthetic pitch at the LFF Stadium in Vilnius is similar to the playing area at Kilmarnocks Rugby Park. Picture: Getty.
The synthetic pitch at the LFF Stadium in Vilnius is similar to the playing area at Kilmarnocks Rugby Park. Picture: Getty.
The synthetic pitch at the LFF Stadium in Vilnius is similar to the playing area at Kilmarnocks Rugby Park. Picture: Getty.

The Scotland manager has named a 27-man squad for the double-header, with Malta to be faced four days later at Hampden. Strachan made the point that those Scottish based players – there are nine in total – will have an advantage in that they are playing semi-regularly on artificial pitches in Scotland.

Those playing club football in England, where artificial pitches are not permitted in the top flight, might be less accustomed to the experience of shaking balls of black rubber from their boots.

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Even before addressing what it means for Scotland’s chances of reaching Russia the clash at the LFF stadium next Friday is a significant one. This will be the first time the full international side have played a competitive fixture on a synthetic surface. It’s perhaps surprising it has taken so long. England, for example, played on one a decade ago against Russia in a Euro 2008 qualifier, losing 2-1.

Scotland will hope they can hit the ground running. Their World Cup hopes depend 
on it.

While again stopping short of describing the game as must-win, Strachan knows three points are a must if his side are to undo at least some of the damage of a home draw against the same opponents last year.

The same pitch in Vilnius
has already claimed one Scottish victim this season. Although the decent standard of opposition as well as St Johnstone’s own shortcomings in front of goal were probably bigger factors, playing on a surface foreign to them can’t have helped Tommy Wright’s side as they fell to a 1-0 defeat in a Europa League qualifying tie against FC Trakai.

Strachan has already gleaned useful information from having Callum Davidson, the 
St Johnstone assistant manager, on his coaching staff.

Davidson, the 26-times capped former Scotland full-back, is clearly looking to avoid being on the losing side in Vilnius twice in a matter of weeks. He has already described the pitch as bearing more similarities to Kilmarnock’s synthetic turf than Hamilton Accies’ Superseal Stadium surface.

So members of Strachan’s technical staff have already found a pitch resembling the one at Rugby Park for training on next week. The Scotland manager is clearly leaving nothing to chance.

While Kilmarnock’s pitch itself would have fitted the bill, Strachan wanted somewhere nearer their Mar Hall base in Renfrewshire. While he has clearly put a lot of thought into ensuring Scotland are well prepared, the manager won’t accept using the underfoot conditions as an excuse next week.

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“It’s just something that’s got to be dealt with,” said Strachan, pictured. “A lot of the guys have played on artificial surfaces. Speaking to Callum, he said it was more like Kilmarnock’s playing surface than any others. So we looked about and we’ve found a place that we think is similar. Then you’ve got to decide how long you want to train on it.

“The lads in the Premier League in England, or the Championship, don’t really train on that at all,” he added. “So we need to speak to the sports people.

“But the players shouldn’t get too spooked at all because the actual surfaces are not that bad now. It’s nowhere near like the days when it was QPR and Luton Town, when it was like cement you were playing on. It was crazy — nobody could play on that.”

Strachan has often spoken about playing for Scotland on prototype synthetic pitches while on a tour to Canada in the early 1980s. He has described the experience as “torture”. Despite this, Scotland won all three games played over eight days in June 1983. Not that the results 
mattered greatly. They were only end-of-season friendlies, the memory of which faded quicker than the carpet burns sustained on the primitive pitches. The stakes are far higher now. Scotland can ill-afford to return from Lithuania with anything other than a win before hosting Malta four days later.

Six points from this double header are a must, particularly after two points were carelessly thrown away in the final moments in the 2-2 draw against England in June.

Afterwards Strachan described the draw-that-felt-like-a-defeat as the toughest experience he’d endured as a manager. So 73 days on, how does he feel now?

“I was (at first) thinking about the excitement of that 15 minutes rather than a point won or two points lost,” he said. “But it kind of got to the point where I thought: ‘Hmm, it was definitely two points lost’.

“It was an emotional game and it took us a wee while to get over it.”

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Luckily, Strachan had something else to take his mind from the heartache. His wife, Lesley, was not going to let him wallow for too long.

“I lapsed into my 40th anniversary celebrations and getting that organised for a few people” he explained. “The logistics of that took my mind away from it. But for the next month it was non-stop, people telling me how it felt at 
the time.

“Even English people I know felt desperate for us, which I found hard to believe. They must have been patronising us. But they knew it was hard for us to take.”

And so it was. But Scotland must dust themselves down and get on with the task in hand. There’s another anniversary on the horizon – 20 years since they last appeared at a major finals. The most appropriate manner in which to mark it is by finally reaching another one.