WHETHER you refer to it as a Vauxhall International Challenge Match or the Qatar Airways Cup – and the SFA’s commercial department would dearly like us to use both labels – tonight’s 90 minutes at Easter Road is simply a friendly in layman’s terms.
For Gordon Strachan, these fixtures have generally been highly productive in his thus far progressive and encouraging tenure as Scotland manager.
I don’t know why I ended up getting sent off five times in those kind of gamesGordon Strachan
He has overseen four victories and just two defeats – both of those against England – in the eight friendlies Scotland have played since he took charge two and a half years ago.
Aside from the off-the-field controversy which has surrounded this evening’s meeting with 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar, it is another potentially valuable assignment for Strachan’s players as they hone their preparations for next week’s hugely significant Euro 2016 qualifier against Republic of Ireland in Dublin.
But while Strachan will look to take as much as he can from his Friday night’s work, don’t expect him to declare himself a fan of friendly matches.
“I hated them as a player, hated them,” he reflected. “I think I played 867 competitive games in my career and I was sent off once. But I was sent off five times in friendlies.
“As a manager, it is a wee bit different. You always try to experiment and see things, even in pre-season, as a manager.
“But as a player, I just thought everything was wrong about them. There was an edge missing, the referees were usually local referees who got on my nerves. I really didn’t like playing in them. I remember when I was at Leeds and they were playing a friendly in Italy. Howard Wilkinson was the manager and I said, ‘Don’t take me to Italy, boss. I’m just in one of those moods. I don’t want to go. I’m 36 and I’ve played so many games this season’.
“But Howard said, ‘You have to go Gordon, because the sponsors want you and Gary McAllister to be there’. I lasted 36 minutes of that game and then I was sent off. I don’t know why I ended up getting sent off five times in those kind of games. I just thought a lot of it was false. I thought the referees were false and everything about it was false.
“I remember one of the red cards was for a kick at someone in a friendly with Aberdeen. Somebody kicked me on the sly and I wasn’t so sly giving it back.
“It ended up that Sir Alex sent me to Nairn for a reserve game again the next night for being so tricky.
“I can also remember getting sent off playing for Dundee against Dundee United in one of those games when I was only 15. There were two twins called Joe and Sandy White in the United team. One played left winger and one played left-back. One kicked me and I wasn’t sure which one it was, so I just attacked both of them and got sent off.”
Strachan, of course, will adopt an altogether more serious and disciplined approach to tonight’s match as Scotland seek to head to Dublin next week with the momentum of a positive display and result against Qatar.
He has no concerns about any of his players taking a similar view of friendly action as he once did.
“We have prepared now throughout the week for this game and the players have got something else behind them,” he added.
“They have the prospect of a good performance, of keeping their fitness up, to play again next week in the qualifier. The intensity of training this week says to me they will be fine.
“There might be something in the game on Friday night, a ball in the air in the middle of the park, and they might think, ‘I might go for it, naw, maybe today I’ll no’.’ I’m alright with that. That can happen.
“What I don’t want is for the boys to think this is a trial match and go careering into tackles just for the sake of showing ‘I’m trying really hard here ahead of Dublin’ because that can be counterproductive as well.
“What you get from this game is a fitness level, a sharpness. There is a point where you go, ‘That’s not going to help me, diving into that tackle in the middle of the park’. It’s different if it’s the 18-yard box, but in the middle of the park, you might go ‘oh’.”
While Scotland face relatively unheralded opponents in Qatar, Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill has opted to get ready for the qualifier with what promises to be a far higher octane friendly match against England on Sunday.
Asked if he felt it was a strange choice of fixture for the Irish to take on, Strachan replied: “It depends. I really don’t know how long that’s been agreed. Usually, your FA decides big games like that. They will say, ‘We need to play that’. The money’s there and they need to take it in.
“I really don’t know if a game against England would be my choice at this stage. If somebody said you had to play Brazil or something like that, you would be excited about the prospect. The result might be a problem. But I don’t think it will be a problem for them, because I think Ireland-England will be a close game.”
Strachan anticipates Qatar, who drew 1-1 with Northern Ireland in Crewe last Sunday, will provide enough of a test for his players at this phase of their preparations.
“They are a reasonably physical side,” he said. “They were stronger than I thought they were going to be against Northern Ireland. They moved the ball quickly and they use their strength to get close to the opposition.”
Hull City left-back Andrew Robertson and Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher both made early exits from yesterday’s training session after picking up minor knocks but both players are expected to be available for selection.
Strachan may take the opportunity to see how Stoke midfielder Charlie Adam re-integrates into the side, while Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths is in contention for a starting berth on his return to a venue where he was so prolific for Hibs. But Strachan insists he will keep any tinkering to his generally tried and trusted line-up to a minimum.
“I’m not experimenting on anybody,” he said. “I know what everybody can do in this squad. My squad is quite consistent. This game really is there for match fitness. I don’t think we’ve got players to do anything really different or cosmic. We’re quite happy with the kind of things we’ve been doing.”