Optimism about Scotland’s latest campaign had evaporated inside ten minutes after Kazakhstan took a shock 2-0 lead in the Astana Arena.
Such was the comprehensive nature of the defeat – striker Baktiyor Zaynutdinov added a third shortly into the second half – McLeish is already fielding questions about his future.
The manager has led Scotland to a play-off place after they finished top of their Nations League qualifying group but losing to a team ranked 117 in the world means any respite has been short-lived. He was asked if the strong reaction from fans to the defeat meant he would consider his position.
“I will just continue to do my job,” he said. “Suffice to say I’m not going to get drawn into that question.”
He sought to clear up what happened following the final whistle when Scott McTominay headed straight down the tunnel rather than head to the area where 600 disillusioned Scots stood following the 4000 trip through six time-zones to Nursultan. Skipper Callum McGregor appeared to row with coach James McFadden after displaying unhappiness with McTominay. McLeish revealed the Manchester United midfielder “had a stomach upset” and was heading straight to the bathroom.
McLeish stressed there are still nine games to be played, 27 points on offer. Losing the first match certainly counts as a setback but McLeish maintained it doesn’t necessarily have to be a fatal blow to the Scots’ ambitions.
“It’s never finished until it’s finished,” he said. “We bounced back from a poor performance in Israel (in the Nations League) and that’s what we must do after this game. We have other players to come back, players with more experience who have to come back to the Scotland squad. Obviously we need to have as strong a squad as we can if we’re going to be strong in qualification.”
The team McLeish picked was Scotland’s youngest for a competitive fixture since the 1970s.
“There is a lot of inexperience in the squad,” he said. “We have introduced a few new names in the last year or so and it’s a process where it can take time but I know we don’t have any time. I want to get these lads playing to the level that we demand on the international scene but it’s not easy for players to come from no experience straight into the international team.”
McLeish refused to consider whether the 3-0 reversal was his worst-ever defeat as a manager. Some believe it registers as Scotland’s worst-ever loss. Last year’s 2-0 defeat by Israel, ranked at 94, was the previous lowest point, at least officially in terms of FIFA rankings. Kazakhstan were winless in all ten of their 2018 World Cup qualifiers and only gained a single victory – 1-0 in Latvia – in their qualifying campaign for UEFA EURO 2016.
“I don’t really rank defeats,” said McLeish. “I just feel in terms of losing I have to bounce back. I always feel low after a game but I’m pretty good at bouncing back.”
Scotland will aim to do so against San Marino, who, at 211, are the lowest ranked team in world football. McLeish will again be without Kieran Tierney and will hope Andy Robertson’s travel plans run smoothly. The Liverpool left-back is due to join up with the squad on Friday in Italy, where Scotland are based prior to Sunday’s night next Group I fixture.