Gordon Strachan is fond of telling the story about what happened on his second visit to Wembley as a fan in 1977. A famous Scottish victory, a memorable pitch invasion and the clump of turf he took all the way home to Scotland, where he was still making his way in the game with Dundee.
When asked to explain why he was on the park that afternoon, his reasonable excuse is: well everyone else was, weren’t they? It helped he was, indeed still is, diminutive enough to blend in with the crowd. No photos have ever surfaced identifying him as one of the troublemakers.
But that was then, this is now. He knows there will be nowhere to hide this evening should Scotland fall to a defeat many observers, and nearly all bookmakers, consider is likely. Losing to England always packs a punch. It’s just that on this occasion, the likely repercussions appear particularly momentous. He will be cast as the only one to blame.
As well as almost certainly quashing Scotland’s World Cup hopes, it is predicted with seeming growing authority that a loss here will also signal the end of the manager’s near four-year reign. Strachan seemed to temper talk of this last night, describing how the players have become like family to him.
“I am really proud of them,” he said. “When I started off four years ago I was cynical about how being a Scotland manager could go. Suddenly they [the players] have all become part of life, the Strachan household and things like that. I love talking to them and getting to know everything about them.
“I get them at their best,” he added. “If you gave me this group of lads and said you can go home at 2 o’clock every day and you don’t have to do a press conference then the world would be a great place!”
Together with these players whom he says he has grown so close to, there will be more than 14,000 away supporters inside Wembley this evening. Mark McGhee, his assistant and a friend for more than 30 years, will also be by his side. But Strachan will feel very much on his own, facing the consequences of decisions taken this week in a bid to get Scotland back on track after five dropped points in their last two outings, against Lithuania and Slovakia.
He has wrestled with questions of personnel for days, influenced in his deliberations by what he has seen in training, hence the call hurriedly sent out to Charlie Mulgrew, pictured, earlier this week.
The Blackburn Rovers player has now shot into the reckoning for a starting place in a defence that holds the key to Scotland’s chances of success. But whether he opts for three centre-halves or just two is one of several dilemmas facing Strachan.
Few Scotland managers can have operated under the amount of pressure that will bear down on him this evening. Not even Craig Brown, who had little to lose when Scotland last arrived at Wembley on competitive business with what seemed a hopeless task of overturning a 2-0 first-leg deficit in 1999’s Euro 2000 play-off.
Strachan stressed last night that he cannot be expected to deal with the question of his own future when he has so much else to consider. Is now the time to hand Leigh Griffiths a start? Should Oliver Burke come back in from the cold? What’s to be done about a defence that Slovakia found it so easy to breach just a few short weeks ago?
Rather than a fistful of grass, the only souvenir Strachan needs to secure from Wembley this time around is a point, at the very least. He acknowledged this last night while giving precious little else away in terms of team news.
“It [the slice of turf] is somewhere in Broughty Ferry now. Would three points be better tomorrow? Yes, that would be a lot better – and I’m sure they would appreciate me leaving the pitch alone as well.”
But gaining this win is an order as tall as the arch which now spans this stadium. It is the first thing the players will see when they pull back the curtains today, since Scotland have chosen to stay at a hotel just a corner kick from the ground. Such a view will certainly help concentrate minds as well as ensuring getting to the stadium on time this evening is one less worry to have to think about.
In contrast to England manager Gareth Southgate, who earlier this week revealed he had shown videos of past games to his players, Strachan stressed he didn’t have to remind anyone in his squad what a clash against England means. He also doubted whether Andy Murray’s rise to No 1 in the tennis rankings is able to influence what happens on a football pitch.
“If the big man can play up front and move about he can have a shot at that,” joked Strachan. Murray, who is in London preparing for next week’s World Tour finals, has not yet confirmed whether he will attend tonight’s game.
“It’s great to see him if he comes along, for sure,” said Strachan. “But individual sports are completely different from a team. We have to rely on so many people making it work.”
Scotland v England, England v Scotland. It’s always serious. But this is more serious than it has been for 17 years, when the countries last met in competitive action. Indeed, there have been only two meetings since; both friendlies, both lost by Scotland while conceding three times. Many suspect the visitors will be doing well to avoid losing another three goals tonight. For much of the week, Strachan has been hidden away. Unlike Southgate, who has fronted two press conferences, Strachan emerged only last night to face reporters ahead of what some perceive will be his Waterloo.
But he was in perky form when he sat down with the written press yesterday evening and sounded more determined than ever to continue in his role. So much rests on these 90 minutes, Strachan conceded.
“If you like something, love something this much, you want it to continue,” he said.