Strachan blossomed as a manager with Celtic after earning his spurs at Coventry City and Southampton. He then endured the wilderness years – all right, the wilderness 12 months actually – at Middlesbrough.
Many feared the muse had deserted him. More worryingly, they wondered whether his appetite had left him as well. His destiny looked like being primarily spent on a sofa as a television pundit. This may have been good news for viewers but threatened to be a waste of an obvious managerial talent who proved unable to overcome the stasis gripping Middlesbrough, Strachan’s one notable failure.
Now he is setting a trend with Scotland. After more than two years out of the game, Strachan returned to take the post of international manager, in doing so erasing fears he would – in the same way Brian Clough’s fate in never becoming England manager is lamented – be ruefully referred to by Tartan Army conscripts as the best manager Scotland never had.
It certainly wasn’t pretty at the start of his reign – Scotland still had to undergo some further painful death spasms before the rebirth was able to get underway. They lost meekly in Serbia following a match against Wales that included, in Strachan’s own estimation, the worst spell of football produced by any team under his charge.
A win in Croatia is now credited as being the first sign that something was stirring. Tuesday night’s draw in Poland was in this writer’s view a yet more dynamic illustration of the changes Strachan and his compadres Mark McGhee and Stuart McCall – his rhythm section – have been implementing since coming on board two years ago in January.
Strachan yesterday expressively described the new feeling within the group. Rather than sneaking out of stadiums as if leaving the scene of a crime, he and his players are striding out with their collars upturned. There is, dare we say it before such a crucial Group D fixture against the Republic of Ireland, evidence of a swagger.
“We’re actually in decent shape right now so I’m pleased for them as a group,” Strachan said yesterday. “There’s nothing better than seeing people get what they deserve. Whether it’s me, the coaches or the players, we get back on our planes, trains and automobiles to get home and can say to ourselves ‘we competed’. That’s all we can ask for.
“There’s nothing wrong with being proud,” he added. “Whether you win lose or draw you want to feel you performed. You can then go into the next game feeling good about yourself. It’s when you come away from games thinking ‘oh, that wasn’t great’, that it’s not great. It is when you’re trying to sneak out of stadiums. Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve done that with other teams. It’s not good.”
As much as it is true that Scotland are lucky to have Strachan, it is also becoming very evident that the Scotland post has been very good for Strachan. Watching him sit in the airport bus as we waited for the flight home from Warsaw provided an opportunity to ponder the satisfaction he must be gaining from this recent upturn in fortunes.
Scotland are again going to great arenas in Europe and competing with the very best. Just as their reputation is being repaired, so too is Strachan’s. This is gratifying on both counts because no-one, not even those wounded by his sometimes sharp tongue, wished for him to be lost to the game. There is a view that Scotland should be disappointed at gaining only a point in Warsaw on Tuesday. However, this fails to take into account a torrid finale that was likely to have occurred whatever Strachan tried. In one of the most impressive settings in European football, Scotland engaged with a Poland side energised by the weekend win over Germany and the very vocal home support. Vindicating the manager’s tactical tweaks, it was a point well-earned rather than two points lost.
The thoughtful Strachan noted Poland’s physical threat and took Andy Robertson aside, informing him that the match wasn’t ideally suited for him, and the way Scotland were planning on playing. Steven Whittaker came in at left-back. It wasn’t a move designed to court the approval of fans – it was met with bemusement, in truth. But it worked in that Whittaker played solidly for the most part. Just as importantly, his presence allowed Ikechi Anya to concentrate on what he does best – ask questions of the opposition right-back.
While the introduction of Greer as a replacement for the injured Grant Hanley was an alteration forced on the manager, it justified Strachan’s continued support of a player who will only ever be a stand-in at this level, particularly since he is two months away from turning 34. But then Strachan is the last person to question anyone’s age. After all, he was still playing top-level football in England at the age of 40. So he was unlikely to be prejudiced against Greer, and rightly so, with the defender helping snuff out the threat supplied by Robert Lewandowski.
“He’s not arrogant,” said Strachan yesterday when asked to expand on the “rock star” comment made in connection with Greer following the game. “But when he walks about he has that look to him with the gear he wears and the shape of his legs.
“He looks like he’s a rock star who has just turned up. But I thought he read the game brilliantly. He’s just got better and better and better so he deserves to be there. I talk about being a good team-mate and that’s what he is.
“Gordon Greer has been around the block but he can’t say someone has helped him get where he is now. It’s all down to him, himself. He’s the reason he’s playing for Scotland, no-one else.”