Alex McLeish: Criticism the spur for Scotland resurgence

Alex McLeish's Scotland squad are put through their paces at Hampden. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS/SFA
Alex McLeish's Scotland squad are put through their paces at Hampden. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS/SFA
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Winning a three-team group in which your two opponents are currently 60th and 91st in the FIFA world rankings wouldn’t normally be regarded as a huge accomplishment for someone with as illustrious a career behind them as Alex McLeish.

But after a turbulent first 11 months of his second spell as Scotland manager, the significance for McLeish of tonight’s Uefa Nations League showdown with Israel at Hampden cannot be overstated.

Victory would not only secure top spot in Group C1 and a guaranteed play-off spot for Euro 2020, it would provide McLeish with much-needed breathing space ahead of the main qualifiers which begin next March.

The opportunity to alter the often depressing mood music which has surrounded the national team in 2018 is one McLeish is convinced his players will emphatically seize this evening.

Buoyed by Saturday night’s comprehensive 4-0 dismantling of Albania in Shkoder, the Scots carry momentum and confidence into their return fixture against an Israeli side who need only a point to win the group.

According to McLeish, he and his players will again also be highly motivated by the scathing criticism which came their way last month when they slumped to a 2-1 defeat against Israel in Haifa.

“Hell hath no fury like a Scotsman scorned,” said McLeish as he reflected on the subsequent response to that dismal display.

“The DNA of the Scotsman comes into it. The players don’t like to be criticised, I don’t like it. Because we don’t like to fail.

“But out of a failure, which was 
Israel away, we had to show the resilience and look at how we approached Albania.

“It’s never easy away from home at any level. Look at Liverpool recently going to Red Star Belgrade, people expecting them to wipe the floor with them, but they had a difficult night and lost.

“So you have to earn it and we certainly earned it on Saturday with a performance level which was really good.

“I can see it in the players’ eyes that they are ready to play to the same level against Israel and win the game. I’ve been in football a long, long time and I know when you get a good feeling about things.

“I get a good feeling about this group of players. I see it in their body language. I see guys who are very motivated to win for Scotland and give their best performances. You get a good feeling as a manager when you see that kind of player in your dressing room.”

With Hampden among the host venues for Euro 2020, there is added pressure on McLeish to guide Scotland to their first major tournament finals since 1998. Victory tonight would greatly enhance their chances, both in nailing down the insurance policy of a play-off place and promoting them to the third pot of seeds for the regulation qualifying draw in Dublin on 
2 December.

“It would be a bit sore to miss out on a tournament when there are games at Hampden,” admitted McLeish.

“So let’s focus on the positive, get behind these guys and make sure they perform to the levels they can. They have come off the back of a good performance on Saturday with great confidence and I emphasise I can see it in their stature at the moment. The way they are walking about.

“When you talk to them individually they are all absolutely 100 percent keen to do something for their country.

“There is no doubt it would be an achievement to win this group. So of course we have to embrace this and we will be going all out to win it. We’ve effectively won a semi-final at the weekend and we are facing a big final on Tuesday night. I would approach every qualification opportunity with our maximum input. I don’t think we have to say this is our best chance of qualifying, through the play-offs.

“We have to keep promoting the evolution of the team, the evolution of the squad and the evolution of the younger players as some of them still only have five or six caps. Yes, the Nations League could give us a great boost but the biggest boost of all is from good performances and positive results.”

McLeish remains wary of the threat posed by an Israel side who warmed up for their visit to Glasgow with a 7-0 drubbing of Guatemala in a friendly last week. He is uncertain how they will tailor their approach to a match where they simply have to avoid defeat.

“That’s the question, whether they will play for a draw,” said McLeish. “Israel have usually been very positive and very strong going forward with the ball.

“They play very high wing backs and they were really committed in Israel, they played really high against us. We probably disappointed a wee bit in not seeing that space in behind them and not going there much more. Whether they will come here and sit in, we have to wait and see.”

With ticket sales of just over 20,000 so far, McLeish remains hopeful of a late surge of enthusiasm among Scotland fans to boost the attendance at the National Stadium. But he recognises only a sustained run of positive results will reignite wider interest in the national team.

“It’s normal that fans would come back if we could get consistency of results and win games,” he said.

“As I say, I’m very confident about the outcome if our players perform to the levels of Saturday night. But it’s not within their control who comes to the game.

“Does it give you extra energy if you have more loud, supportive fans? Yes, of course it does. We would love to see that at Hampden, Hampden needs that. We have just won the fight to keep it as the national stadium, now we have to win the fight to fill it again.”