Strachan set to keep faith with Zagreb heroes

Russell Martin celebrates after putting in an impressive performance in Friday night's 1-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Croatia in Zagreb. Picture: PA
Russell Martin celebrates after putting in an impressive performance in Friday night's 1-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Croatia in Zagreb. Picture: PA
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It WAS difficult to avoid being struck by the contrast.

A photograph of Charlie Mulgrew enjoying his wedding was included in one newspaper yesterday, a couple of days after Scotland had managed to get by without him in Croatia.

Russell Martin, meanwhile, was one of those who stepped into the breach created by Mulgrew and several other call-offs, performing as well as any Scotland centre-back has done in recent times.

It has also since emerged that he had postponed his own wedding in order to play. Before he became rather more conspicuous last week, many might have questioned whether his heart was in playing for Scotland, given that he was born in Brighton, and has played all his football in England. However, there he was, prepared to alter his not insignificant domestic plans in order to help Scotland out in a qualifying campaign that has long since been rendered hopeless.

This is a player who was happy to reveal last week that he turns up for Scotland matches and is routinely quizzed by taxi drivers on his arrival at Glasgow airport about what he does for a living. He is also used to being ignored by international managers when he gets here. Despite being included in several squads, Friday marked his competitive debut.

It might well be, as has been suggested, that he was given an assurance he would start three weeks ago. Even so, having been overlooked on a number of other occasions when he has reported to duty for matches, under both Gordon Strachan and Craig Levein, he might well have decided that, on second thoughts, maybe he should just give international football a bodyswerve. Fortunately, he didn’t, although perhaps we need to be careful not to sound too grateful. The Scotland international football team, for all the struggles in recent years, should still be treated with respect.

Mulgrew got the Strachan reign under way with the winning goal against Estonia in February, but he might now find that some inflexibility on his part – the 7 June date for Croatia v Scotland was announced as long ago as November, 2011 – could count against him when the high-profile friendly with England comes around in August.

Strachan has suggested he is ready to reward those who not only turned up against Croatia, but who in some cases gave the performance of their lives. “Because of the call-offs, there were one or two surprises, and I can tell you right now one or two of them have done themselves no harm whatsoever,” he has said, looking ahead to the friendly with England.

Strachan is right to consider remaining faithful to his Croatian crew, although he is probably aware that he cannot afford to be too hardline. He is forever at the mercy of call-offs. However, it sounds as though those who played on Friday will be at the front of the queue when the starting places are handed out in August. Of the seven call-offs from the last squad (most, admittedly, had legitimate, injury-based explanations) perhaps only Scott Brown could expect to walk straight back into the side. With Celtic hopefully still having Champions League qualifying commitments then, Strachan will be conscious that his availability is far from guaranteed.

However, the Scotland manager has also rightly pointed out that we should be careful not to get into the habit of applauding players merely for turning up for international duty. It is, after all, meant to be the highest honour. As he himself noted on Friday night in Zagreb, following the hugely satisfying 1-0 win: “You play for your country for pride not money, and you give people pride.”

This has to continue to be the motivation, and for those who feel international footballers are too harshly criticised, then read again the reaction to Friday night’s win. When the players deserve to be praised, they are praised.

Strachan also stressed last week that being a top-class footballer was an “intense” occupation – as it should be. “I remember going to Canada and playing three games in June – I never gave it a second thought,” he said, after being asked specifically about Kris Commons, who, it appears, has hung up his international boots for good. After informing Strachan that he was stepping away from international football to spend more time with his family and less time in hotels, the midfielder promptly headed to Las Vegas on an end-of-season jaunt with two Celtic team-mates.

Although he would not comment on the player in particular, Strachan did expand on what being a footballer was about in his day. Heading off on tours in the close season was “part of fitba’”, he told reporters in Croatia. “It was a conveyor belt of games.”

As for Commons’ motivations for retiring from international football, he said: “You would have to ask him that. It’s his family life and he has to decide how he deals with family life. Not me.

“I cannot decide that. I can only tell you about the modern footballer. If you want to have nine weeks’ holidays then play in a poor side.”

From his comments, and some of the looks he threw, it seemed clear that he is not entirely enamoured with those who decided they had something better to do at the same time as a World Cup qualifier. He certainly doesn’t feel the unusual timing of the fixture should be an issue.

“I think if I got picked for my country I wouldn’t bother about what time of year it was,” said Strachan.

“It wouldn’t bother me, or what the conditions were.”

But, he did offer a note of caution. Just because some others have made themselves unavailable, we should not canonise professional footballers for doing their job, particularly when their job involves something as special as playing football for their country.

“I wouldn’t give it a second thought so we shouldn’t be thinking ‘they’ve done well to turn up in June’,” he said, reasonably.

He stressed that it should be the mentality of the top players to be prepared to play anytime, anywhere. He recalled signing Robert Jarni, the Croatian winger, for Coventry City just after the 1998 World Cup: “It was just five days later and I told him we started training the following week, and he just looked at me and said ‘that’s not a problem’.

“Listen, if you’re a player and want a good holiday then play for a rotten club,” added Strachan. “You can get nine weeks off, you know, if you play for a rotten club, or more specifically a team that’s performing poorly.” Scotland fitted this description not so long ago. The win over Croatia has at least stopped the rot, and while, it’s true, there was little at stake, the result still prompted many around Europe to sit up and take notice.

Scotland were the first side to force a clean sheet away to Croatia in 22 World Cup qualifying matches. In all, Croatia have played 44 home qualifiers since becoming independent, winning 30 of them, drawing 12 and losing just two. Such statistics underline just what a remarkable result it was for Scotland on Friday night – and it was one that the well-drilled display deserved.

There will surely be few complaints if, come Wembley, Strachan decides to ask these same players to go out, and try to do it all over again. But this reward will be for performing so well on their last appearance, not for simply turning up.