Paul Hartley’s solitary goal for Scotland was worth savouring. A delicate, curled chip into the far corner, it sealed a win over Slovenia for Walter Smith’s side 12 years ago.
Good though it was, it wasn’t a hugely significant strike. Scotland were already out of the qualifying equation for the World Cup in 2006 by the time they secured this impressive 3-0 away victory in the last match of the campaign.
But it did count for something – Scotland ensured they did not slip down to the fifth pot of seeds for the next campaign, which is when they saw their qualifying dreams extinguished in the dying moments of the last game, against Italy.
But the Dundee manager is confident a victory against Slovenia this time around can ignite Scotland’s World Cup hopes in the current qualification race. Gordon Strachan’s side play Slovenia at Hampden in March and no one is under any illusion about what is required.
“This is a big game for us,” said Hartley. “It is a game that we must win. There is no room for error.”
Hartley is on a break from the pressure of getting results during the Premiership’s winter shutdown and clearly enjoyed reminiscing about his one goal in 25 games for Scotland at Hampden yesterday. “It was a little chip,” he recalled. “I think the three goals that night were terrific. [Darren[ Fletcher scores a 25-yarder, [James] McFadden scores a great goal and I managed to get on the scoresheet as well.”
But it’s what happens in the near future that matters for Scotland. Hartley is confident Scott Brown will continue his Scotland comeback against Slovenia, despite no commitment from the player yet. The pair played together for Celtic under Strachan but were enemies before that, facing up to each other in Edinburgh derbies – Hartley for Hearts, Brown for Hibs.
“You could say we had a love-hate relationship,” he recalled. “We used to kick lumps out of each other in the derby games. It was really like that. He was one of those players I used to hate playing against. Hated it. He would always be in your face, saying stuff to you.
“It wasn’t until he came to Celtic and we were team-mates that you see he is such a terrific lad. Even now, if you are looking for something, you can phone him up and he will do it straight away. People maybe don’t see that side of him. It’s not until you are in a dressing room beside him. He is such a bubbly character and is great to have around.”
Hartley got to witness how Brown has relished playing under Brendan Rodgers when he scored the winner against Dundee at Dens Park in September. It’s the only league goal he has scored this season, due partly to the fact he is playing in deeper areas.
“He’s probably a little more defensive than he was,” noted Hartley. “I watched him a couple of weeks ago when he dropped into the centre-half position and I think Brendan’s already said he could eventually play him there, as a sweeper. He’s definitely changed the way from the days when he used to bomb forward, although he can still do that. But his game management now is a lot, lot better. When he first came on the scene he would get an amount of bookings for fouls but he plays now with a real maturity.”
Hartley is well placed to assess the options Strachan has prior to naming his squad for the clash with Slovenia – with a home friendly also set to be arranged prior to the Hampden fixture. Dundee have played everyone in the league twice bar Aberdeen. Like many, he has been impressed with Brown’s midfield partner Stuart Armstrong, as well as Rangers’ Barrie McKay.
“He [Armstrong] is a box-to-box midfielder and he’s another who’s been having a fantastic season,” he said. “If you look at the last 18 months he didn’t really feature that much and he didn’t play in his strongest position for me, from his time at Dundee United when he was a central player. He was stuck out on the left for Celtic. I think Brendan’s come in and seen he’s got a good player on his hands. It’s helping Scott – Scott’s doing the sitting and Armstrong’s been box-to-box.”
“They’ve a good partnership, a good understanding,” he added. “We want to get all our good players who are on form on the pitch against Slovenia and hopefully they can continue that form until March.
“The manager picks the best squad available to him but if Stuart continues as he is, he’ll be in the plans, the same as McKay at Rangers, who’s having a good season too. That energy and drive is what they’ll bring to a squad.”
l Paul Hartley was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is proud sponsor of the Scotland national team.