Stephen Halliday: Strachan faces Scotland acid test

Scotland coach Gordon Strachan faces a serious test in the clashes with Belgium and Macedonia. Picture: SNS
Scotland coach Gordon Strachan faces a serious test in the clashes with Belgium and Macedonia. Picture: SNS
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GORDON Strachan has set an upbeat and bullish tone to the start of international week for Scotland, declaring his unequivocal confidence he will lead the national team to qualification for the 2016 European Championship finals.

No-one should be anything less than encouraged by the positivity being expressed by the Scotland manager. Instinctively a realist, Strachan is not someone who is prone to setting targets he does not believe are achievable. So he has clearly seen enough in the five games of his tenure so far to persuade him that ending Scotland’s wretchedly-lengthening absence from a major tournament finals is within the capability of his squad.

With the Euro 2016 finals in France being extended to 24 nations for the first time, there is undeniably greater scope for a middle-ranked team like Scotland to secure a place. Uefa have yet to unveil the qualification process, ahead of the draw in Nice on 23 February next year, but it is understandably being viewed by many within the SFA as the optimum chance to return to the big stage for the first time since the 1998 World Cup finals were held in the same country.

Strachan is buying into that belief, buoyed by Scotland’s last two performances. The tenacious 1-0 upset win over Croatia in Zagreb in June was followed by last month’s enterprising, if ultimately fruitless display in the 3-2 defeat by England at Wembley. After the dismal back-to-back defeats in March by Wales at Hampden and Serbia in Belgrade, when Strachan must have privately questioned the wisdom of his willingness to succeed the hapless Craig Levein in the job, there were certainly some signs of promise against Croatia and England.

The challenge for Strachan now is to translate that promise into sustainable improvement before the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign begins 12 months from now. In order to vindicate his newly-found faith in the potential of his squad, he will have to master the art of getting the best out of them in the double-headers which are now such a critical factor in making it to those much-coveted major finals. It is a knack which has generally eluded Scotland managers in recent years. Even during the most creditable attempt to end the barren run, when Scotland lost out to Italy and France in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, Alex McLeish was fatally undermined by a feckless 2-0 loss in Georgia just four days after an exceptional performance in beating Ukraine 3-1 at Hampden.

So the final double header in a 2014 World Cup qualifying group which was already a busted flush for Scotland when Strachan took charge should be regarded as ideal and instructive preparation for the serious work facing the manager next year.

This Friday night’s meeting with Belgium at Hampden, followed by the trip to face Macedonia in Skopje the following Tuesday evening, will go some way to indicating whether Scotland’s last two matches were reliable evidence of real progress under Strachan or simply offered the Tartan Army illusory hope.

Certainly, there could hardly be a more stringent examination for the Scots than taking on a Belgian side regarded by many observers as serious contenders to lift the World Cup in Rio next summer. In Brussels last October, only an outstanding performance by goalkeeper Allan McGregor – who misses out on Friday because of suspension – restricted Belgium’s “golden generation” to just a 2-0 win in what proved to be Levein’s final match at the helm.

Boasting ten players who ply their trade in the upper reaches of the English Premier League, bolstered by an assortment of star names from other elite European leagues, Belgium will arrive in Glasgow intent on the victory which will keep them firmly on course to win Group A and qualify directly for the finals. Strachan will take them on with a squad in which none of the four central strikers he has named – Jordan Rhodes of Blackburn, Ross McCormack of Leeds, Jamie Mackie of Nottingham Forest and Leigh Griffiths of Wolves – operates in the top tier of English club football.

It is a stark illustration of the gulf in standards the Scotland manager must try to bridge if he is to turn around the fortunes of the national team. His fresh sense of optimism should be welcomed. But he remains in a job where reality tends to bite with a vengeance.

Hall of Fame stained by Walker’s omission

THE transfer window deadline was the not the only one to pass in Scotland at the weekend. Midnight last night was the cut-off point to lodge nominations for this year’s round of inductions to the Scottish Football Hall of Fame.

The 2013 ceremony at Hampden on 10 November will mark the tenth year since the Hall of Fame was inaugurated, proving there remains an insatiable appetite for nostalgia and celebration of those who have made exceptional contributions to the game in this country.

For this correspondent, however, it has also become an annual source of utter bewilderment over the ongoing omission from the pantheon of Bobby Walker.

A powerful case can be made to acclaim the iconic Hearts and Scotland forward, who amassed a staggering tally of 29 caps in the early 20th century period when just three internationals were played each year, as the country’s greatest player of all time.

It remains a stain on the Hall of Fame’s credibility that Walker was not one of the inaugural inductees back in 2004. That he is still ignored, when a total of 83 names are now on the list, simply beggars belief. Walker’s absence is the equivalent of Benny Lynch being left out of the Scottish Boxing Hall of Fame.

Hugh McIlvanney, whose peerless prose once graced the pages of this newspaper, is on the panel which judges the nominations each year. The brilliant sports writer was himself inducted to the Hall of Fame two years ago. Few would argue with McIlvanney’s status as the leading light in his chosen field. But it is a curious Hall of Fame indeed which would induct an observer of its sport ahead of one of its most accomplished practitioners.