IT IS enormously unhelpful that Scotland set off today bound for a destination described in holiday brochures as “a golfer’s paradise”. Gordon Strachan can hardly avoid being reminded how he might otherwise be occupying his time.
The Scotland manager will perhaps look wistfully at the manicured golf courses stretched out below his hotel window on the outskirts of Faro, eager to hone his long game in the sunshine.
However, it is his short game that is currently the issue. Perhaps the most cheerless plane-load of Scots ever to depart from Glasgow for warmer climes is due to land in the Algarve later today. But the spotlight will fall on just one member of the party, just as it did immediately after Scotland’s Euro 2016 fate was sealed on Thursday against Poland.
What are Strachan’s intentions now? He has always stressed how he never makes plans, how his career has unfolded “like a mystery tour”. He is undeniably grateful at ending up Scotland manager. But the question is: for how much longer? What is the toll taken by the manner of Scotland’s exit from Euro 2016?
For the time being, he remains in situ. For the time being, he is in charge of a nation’s footballing fates – although ‘in charge’ is meant in the loosest sense.
There was a pre-ordained quality about the manner of Scotland’s latest exit from a qualifying campaign. How could anyone have warded against a chain of events ending with such a freakish late equaliser? Similarly, who expected Ireland to produce such a stunning win over Germany? Managing Scotland seems to be an exercise in futility. A defensive drill has yet to be devised that guards against the world’s currently most lethal striker being gifted a chance via a fortunate rebound off a post.
Strachan looked on helplessly from the sidelines. Who could blame him if he has since wondered: do I really need to put myself through such torture? He sounded as shell-shocked as anyone afterwards.
So we now make the weary trudge to an exclusive golfing mecca in Portugal for a “pointless” – Strachan’s own description two nights ago – last Group D clash with Gibraltar. It was supposed to be the fiesta in Faro. It was expected to be the night when the Tartan Army were delivered from a purdah stretching back to 1998.
A balmy evening on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. A multi-goal victory over Gibraltar. This was the plan. It might still happen, of course. Scotland should – surely – win handsomely. Judging from weather forecasts, it is also due to be warm, if thundery. But it won’t matter a whit.
There has been a brutal trashing of expectations akin to arriving to find the dream holiday hotel booked over a year previously is still under construction. To extend this metaphor, many are pondering where Strachan’s Scotland are now: have the foundations even been put in place?
As hard as it is to contemplate a summer when it feels like everyone else has been invited to the beach party bar Scotland, the answer is surely yes. But for an agonising twist on Thursday and a once-in-a-lifetime result in Dublin, Scotland would be well-placed to finish third.
The chorus of voices yesterday from high-profile football people in support of Strachan was only to be expected. From Kenny Dalglish to Denis Law, they leapt to the defence of the manager. Dalglish stressed how it would be senseless to get rid of Strachan now.
But then sacking Strachan – or at least not renewing his contract – isn’t even the issue. Both Stewart Regan and Alan McRae, respectively chief executive and president of the Scottish Football Association, have already stated their wish to secure Strachan’s services for another qualifying campaign, whether or not Scotland reached Euro 2016.
Both will be on the plane to Faro today, extra leg-room guaranteed. As they recline in their seats they may need to discuss ways in which they can persuade Strachan to stay. For this is, perhaps, the most worrying concern. That Strachan, a maverick, strong-willed individual at the best of times, walks away. That he decides he would prefer to spend time with his grandchildren rather than return to the drawing board with Scotland.
Top of the list of chores is the unappealing thought of organising a series of friendlies. Scotland, third seeds this time, begin the task of trying to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in 11 months’ time, against Malta. By the time the second of the fixtures against England comes around in June 2017, Strachan will be 60.
Does he wish to endure more twist and turns, more cork-screwing emotions? Germany were meant to be so far ahead of everyone else in the current qualifying campaign that their serene progression would be of no consequence; it is what Scotland did against other sides that mattered.
So much for that theory. In being the only country vying for qualification from the group to fail to take anything from Germany, Scotland tripped up. As for Germany not impacting on Scotland’s prospects, this, too, was wide of the mark. Their loss in Dublin meant Scotland’s hopes would have hung by a thread even had Strachan’s side avoided losing a last-gasp equaliser against Poland.
Scotland suffered for failure to secure one marquee result. But it is of course easy to lament a night in Tbilisi, the most glaring missed opportunity in a run of four games where Scotland collected just two points. While issuing strong support for Strachan, defender Russell Martin referenced this loss last month as being the only real setback in nine qualifying ties to date.
“I definitely think he’s the man to take the national team forward,” he said yesterday. “Just look at the progress we’ve made. We’re talking about a disappointing 90 minutes in Georgia. Let’s not get carried away with ourselves, that’s all it was – and the rest of the squad feel the same.
“We win over there and it’s a totally different scenario against Poland. If you look at the overall progress we’ve made as a squad and team since he’s been in, it’s been huge. I’m sure I’m echoing the sentiments of all the lads when I say we want him to stay. Hopefully he does.”
From Martin’s words, there is clearly some doubt existing among the players that Strachan will remain in charge. In the dismayed aftermath of the Poland match, the manager was understandably reluctant to even consider the question of his own future.
Over the course of this weekend, he will be pestered to deliver news it seems the majority of the Tartan Army still wishes to hear: we go again.