While they might have set out on the campaign with a grander plan in mind, Scotland approach tonight’s final World Cup qualifying clash against Croatia in the knowledge that they need to avoid becoming history makers for the wrong reasons.
Thirteen months ago Craig Levein eyed this fixture as being the one where a result would see Scotland secure a play-off place – at least – for Brazil 2014. It hasn’t quite turned out that way with Scotland still in danger of finishing in last place in Group A. They will also seek to salvage some Hampden Park pride this evening just days after the French club St Etienne confirmed they now own the famous old square goalposts from the stadium.
Should Scotland fail to defeat Croatia tonight it will be the first time in the country’s international history that they have completed a continental qualifying campaign without a home win. Two Hampden draws at the outset against Serbia and Macedonia contributed to Levein’s eventual sacking in November, and Gordon Strachan has had two other chances to gain an overdue Scotland victory at home – against Wales in his first competitive game as manager and then Belgium, Group A’s outstanding side. Both games were lost.
Not since the 1-0 Euro 2012 victory over Lithuania have Scotland won a competitive match at Hampden, and with the stadium set to be handed over to the Commonwealth Games organisers after the friendly with the United States in November, there will not be another opportunity to rectify this record for quite some time. Hampden is set to be converted into a track and field venue and will be out of commission for football for about a year. Even the old goalposts, so redolent of better times, have been sold abroad. Officials at St Etienne have bought the iconic goalposts after the part they played in the 1976 European Cup final, when their distinctive shape was said to have hampered the French club’s chances of overcoming Bayern Munich. On two occasions the ball rebounded back off the square bar rather than bounce off it into the net.
At a time when it feels as though a piece of Hampden heritage has been sold off, it would be additionally galling to have to endure Scotland setting an unwelcome record of no victories in a continental qualifying campaign at the stadium. Bearing in mind this historical context, Strachan yesterday acknowledged that tonight would be a timely occasion to post a win.
He also conceded that it would also serve as a psychological boost before the qualifiers for Euro 2016 begin next autumn. “It would be good, I had not thought about it that way,” said Strachan, whose own Scotland career coincided with a time when teams feared coming to Hampden, with its square goalposts and dark, foreboding banks of terracing. They also had a team to further put the frighteners up opponents.
Strachan continued: “If you go back to the 70s or 80s, we could be aggressive to people here. We were an aggressive nation. It actually scared people to come here but you can’t do that now. Teams can come here without the fear of being intimidated. We were good at that in the 70s and 80s when you think of some of the players we had in midfield who could run about, and Joe Jordan up front – we could scare the living daylights out of people. You can’t do that now.
“That’s why Barcelona have come good,” he added. “They also have good pitches to play on. It’s like the perfect storm. If you had tried to play the football that they play in my day, when we had to play in mud and over-the-ball tackling, it would not be the same.
“Playing in grounds like Hampden does not scare teams any more,” he added. “People were saying about Celtic Park being fantastic with 60,000 people, but the top teams like Barcelona are used to that now. Only bad players get scared by the crowd. Good players love it.”
The crowds are also not now as vast due to a combination of factors. A fundamental reason as far as Scotland are concerned is the lack of success on the pitch. Strachan rightly applauded those supporters who are set to attend tonight, with crowd predictions ranging from the high 20,000s to the low 30,000s.
“We would like to have 50,000 people there, that’s for sure,” he said. “Until we give them football that deserves 50,000 people there then what we are getting now is fantastic. What you want to do as a football manager is send people away happy with what they have seen.”
Strachan noted that the international game is often suited to visiting nations. Of the 15 qualifying ties played on Friday night in Europe, six ended with away victories. However, Strachan’s point is a valid one, and was borne out by Scotland’s performance away to Croatia in June. The 1-0 victory was as comfortable as Scotland have looked in the campaign so far.
“It is easier to set up a team that doesn’t want to lose too many goals than set up a team that scores a lot of goals,” he explained.
Strachan believes he has found a system suitable for assignments away from home, and two wins from three competitive trips would suggest that he has. Now is the time to bring it all back home.
CROATIA 1 SCOTLAND 1 (11 October, 2000)
Scotland manager Craig Brown was sent to the stand when the teams first met in a 2002 World Cup qualifier in the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb. Middlesbrough striker Alen Boksic gave Croatia a 15th-minute lead when he controlled a long ball and guided it past Neil Sullivan. However, Kevin Gallacher converted Colin Cameron’s cross nine minutes later and Scotland saw it out to claim a point after Brown was ordered off for complaining about a series of heavy tackles by Igor Stimac, who now manages Croatia.
SCOTLAND 0 CROATIA 0 (1 September, 2001)
Both sides were looking to pull level with Belgium at the top of the World Cup group but a draw left Scotland effectively needing a win in Brussels the following month. Scotland survived some intense early pressure with Sullivan making some good saves, but the home side finished strongly and Billy Dodds had a goal disallowed for offside. Scotland would lose against Belgium as their World Cup hopes disappeared in a game which spelled the end of manager Brown’s reign.
SCOTLAND 1 CROATIA 1 (26 March, 2008)
George Burley began his tenure as Scotland manager with a friendly draw against Croatia at a sodden Hampden. Croatia started well and Niko Kranjcar fired them ahead in the tenth minute with a swerving drive, but Kenny Miller equalised on the half-hour after latching on to Steven Fletcher’s long ball. Craig Gordon made several good stops and Miller had a header cleared off the line as both sides pushed for a winner.
CROATIA 0 SCOTLAND 1 (7 June, 2013)
An under-strength Scotland secured their first victory of their World Cup qualifying campaign with a shock victory in Zagreb. Robert Snodgrass netted the only goal in the 26th minute when he pounced on a loose ball to steer home following positive play by Shaun Maloney. Gordon Strachan was without Scott Brown, James Forrest, Charlie Mulgrew, Gary Caldwell and both Steven and Darren Fletcher, but goalkeeper Allan McGregor was rarely troubled in a superb defensive display.