Alan Pattullo: Plenty pointers in Prague, now to win points

Scotland's Robert Snodgrass impressed in the win over Czech Republic. Picture: John Walton/PA Wire
Scotland's Robert Snodgrass impressed in the win over Czech Republic. Picture: John Walton/PA Wire
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It might, in the end, have proved only slightly more experimental than a new Coldplay album. But, while no envelopes were pushed, Gordon Strachan’s letter back from Prague contained largely positive findings.

He gathered enough intelligence to prove heartening and help shake off any lingering torpor after the journey home, which ended in the early hours of yesterday morning.

The manager and his coaches were out on the training ground again yesterday 
afternoon at 3.30pm as No 2 Scotland squad assembled at Mar Hall.

Of those who featured in Thursday night’s 1-0 win over Czech Republic, only Charlie Mulgrew, goalscorer Ikechi Anya and Paul Caddis are sticking around for Tuesday’s friendly with Denmark, a no less taxing challenge assigned to a largely fresh group of 

Gordon Greer, an unused substitute two days ago, also stays on. Steven Fletcher, meanwhile, rejoins the group after dropping out of the trip to Prague due to illness.

It is strange that the majority of those responsible for such a satisfying win over Czech Republic have already moved on, leaving Strachan with much to ponder – which is what he hoped. The manner of victory was perhaps as important as the result, which further supports the suspicion Scotland are becoming 
adept at excelling when the pressure is off.

In three trips away to Germany, Poland and Ireland on Euro 2016 qualifying business, Scotland failed to secure an eye-opening, potentially game-changing win. But in three successive away friendlies against strong opposition in the shape of Norway, Poland and Czech Republic, Scotland have emerged with 1-0 victories that would have been priceless had they occurred in qualifying.

Just as in Molde and Warsaw, when a Scott Brown goal was enough to claim victory, there were no points to play for in Prague on Thursday. Instead, Strachan must content himself with pointers. Scotland now face Denmark at Hampden on Tuesday with the chance to secure a third successive home friendly win.

The victories Scotland so desire in qualifying and yet which so often prove elusive are being happily racked up away from the pressure cooker environment of competitive international football.

It’s perhaps why Strachan did not go overboard with his praise on Thursday night. The manager, after all, is in what he has termed his “inquisitive phase”. He is assessing options, pondering tactics and seeking signs of the mercurial talent he claims can be key to turning costly draws such as against Poland at Hampden in October and Ireland in June into wins.

The result in Prague was a decent, hard-working effort from players covering a range of profiles, from Ross McCormack and Matt Phillips, returning forgotten men, to Kenny McLean, who handled his promotion from the 
Under-21s with the expected composure after such a good season with Aberdeen.

Then there was Tony Watt, an outlier if ever there was but who has now offered Strachan something to think about after a cameo where he did enough to suggests he can belong in this company. He is someone Strachan suggested could 
provide the X factor.

But, while this may be so, McCormack, who Strachan opted to play from the start against Czech Republic, looks a more reliable source of inspiration. The manager was quick to spread the compliments around the team, specifically in the direction of goalkeeper Allan McGregor, when asked for his thoughts on McCormack, such a controversial absentee from the original squad(s).

But there’s little question 
he made best use of the opportunity to impress, justifying the support of those who 
had found his exclusion 

Craig Brown once had a wheeze when pressed to play someone he himself didn’t rate. In order to dampen the ardour of those backing this particular player’s claims to be given a Scotland chance he would give the punters what they wanted and let their pet project play themselves out of contention.

Of course, Strachan’s intentions when selecting McCormack, following Steven 
Naismith’s withdrawal, are unlikely to have been so 
dishonourable; he wanted the Fulham player to excel in order to provide him with another option, which was the object of the exercise.

But it is notable that a mission designed to unearth new possibilities ended up reinforcing some long-held convictions: McGregor is an outstanding goalkeeper and McCormack is an intelligent footballer with a deft touch. Both have pushed themselves back into contention for a starting place when the competitive action begins again in September.

“If we can come out of these two games with a lot more choices than we had going into the games then it’s been 
a success,” said Strachan 

“As far as Thursday night went, you could say that’s 
happened already.

“That’s the gamble we took [by naming two squads].

“But when I was picking the squads I was thinking about the players at this time of the year. It didn’t make sense to take them all away for nine days when some of them 
maybe wouldn’t get a game.

“It could have been a case too that they could have trained too hard. So it was four days [for them], max.”

For Strachan and his coaches, however, the work continues. They should be applauded for their decision to do things slightly differently. An unusual system whereby one squad checks out of the team HQ as another checks in has already yielded positive results.