November is only mid-season in domestic football terms. However, near the end of the calendar year stands as a reasonable marker for reviewing an international team’s fortunes.
Two years ago, following a 1-0 win over Republic of Ireland that outweighed the friendly defeat by England a few days afterwards, the feeling was: firmly on the right track.
Last year, after Scotland were blown off course by a body blow of a defeat by Georgia before dropping points against Poland, the mood was markedly less upbeat.
But there was still enough goodwill left for manager Gordon Strachan to be serenaded from the stand where more than 10,000 Scotland fans gathered for the last dead rubber game against Gibraltar.
When he eventually confirmed he’d stay on for another bash at getting to a major finals it was generally felt to be A Good Thing, because there was enough evidence of improvement to suggest he deserved another chance. Strachan described the reaction of the fans in Faro as “an experience that will live with me for the rest of my life”.
Scottish Football Association chief executive Stewart Regan, now under severe pressure, noted “the good work that has been apparent in many performances and results throughout the previous campaign”.
In truth, Strachan’s case was still also being nourished by the result in Croatia that came out of nowhere from the defunct campaign when he took the reins from Craig Levein.
A 1-0 win over a side then ranked fourth in the world in Zagreb with a patchwork team was indeed noteworthy, even if it could not impact on Scotland’s chances of qualifying for the Brazil World Cup. But it had the effect of rallying the troops and meant Strachan was up and running after two consecutive competitive defeats at the start of his reign. A 3-2 loss to England at Wembley in the next game did little to dampen growing optimism since the visitors were twice in front before Rickie Lambert’s 70th-minute winner.
Scotland finished 2013 with a 1-0 win a friendly in Norway, started the next year with a 1-0 win in Poland and genuinely looked ready to mount a challenge to qualify for Euro 2016.
They didn’t, their hopes punctured by another horrible loss in Tbilisi. Hence there being some dissenting voices when Strachan announced he had reached agreement to take charge of the forthcoming World Cup qualifying campaign.
But when this kicked off with a 5-1 win over Malta, having recovered from being pegged back to 1-1 in circumstances Strachan admitted had him recalling a Celtic defeat by Clyde in the Scottish Cup, it seemed most were back on side. The evening was additionally encouraging because it marked the competitive debut of Oli Burke, the winger from whom so much was expected following his £13 million move from Nottingham Forest to Bundesliga club Red Bull Leipzig.
Perhaps if we are looking for a moment when the Tartan Army’s optimism really did begin to drain away, it was when the 19-year-old Burke, who had been reasonably effective for the first 57 minutes of his second competitive appearance, was replaced against Lithuania by James Forrest. The muttering from nearly 40,000 people was audible.
Fedor Cernych scored Lithuania’s opener two minutes later, plunging Hampden into dismayed silence. They knew Scotland had to find two goals in the last half an hour to keep their hopes of qualifying fully intact. Strachan’s side found only one, a last-ditch equaliser by James McArthur.
Some argued the point won could yet prove a significant one, providing Scotland could pick something up on the road in Slovakia and then at Wembley. Two 3-0 defeats were comprehensive proof they couldn’t.
These results look to have combined to rob Strachan of the belief he can do any more with this group of players. Now reported to be abroad considering his future, few expect him to return with the news he is willing to stay on.
Even if he does, has the goodwill of the SFA’s hierarchy towards him been eroded in the wake of strong criticism directed their way from some quarters? There was an incredibly badly advised tweet from Alloa Athletic owner Mike Mulraney on Friday night as the dust was still settling following the loss to Gareth Southgate’s side: “Like all Scotland fans, gutted. Another poor result”. That’s Mike Mulraney, one of eight members of the SFA board, a group of men ostensibly holding Strachan’s future in their hands. No one could argue it was a poor result, but was it really right that he should be publicly commenting?
Judging from the noises emerging since Saturday, there is a feeling that the SFA’s position is hardening against Strachan – or at least that is the image they are hoping to portray. It seems they have no wish to be cast as impotent bureaucrats waiting for the say-so from Strachan, even if that is how it looks, and perhaps even is. Whatever his perceived failures, Strachan can still count on a lot of affection from fans for what he did as a player in a dark blue jersey.
The majority won’t want to see his dignity damaged by being chased from Hampden. But while Strachan is due back in Scotland later this week for talks with the SFA, he knows he has probably reached the point of no return as national manager.