After the first international double-header of this season, Alex McLeish has revealed he made efforts to reassure James Forrest almost as soon as the player emerged from a shower.
It is just surprising to hear the winger – are we even allowed to refer to this free-scoring phenomenon as one of these any more? – even needed to wash. He hadn’t played a single minute of that evening’s 2-0 win over Albania, nor had he appeared at all in the 4-0 defeat by Belgium four days earlier. He and Callum Paterson – another who has since fought his way back into contention – were the only outfield players not to taste any action.
McLeish wanted to let Forrest know he was still in his thoughts, that the system he was using right now was not wingers-friendly, and finished the exchange by challenging the player to make it hard for him to ignore him. So, when Forrest scored four times for Celtic at St Johnstone a few days before Scotland’s next double-header, it was assumed he had just done that and played himself back into the Scotland XI.
He hadn’t. Scotland lost 2-1 to Israel in Haifa and the knives were out for McLeish.
‘Lucky’ was once a prefix attached as commonly as ‘big’ to Eck. But then he became manager of Scotland for a second time and fortune seemed to desert him. In the case of Forrest, the decision to exclude him was reached because of pragmatic reasons. It was a self-imposed wound. Forrest was fit, there was simply no room in the system McLeish favoured at the time due to the desperate need to accommodate both Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney.
It’s worth noting that amid all the call-offs, and the loony claims of a divided, unhappy squad, the one player with ample reason to tell McLeish to stuff it has remained admirably loyal, to the extent he has probably kept him in a job. The five goals Forrest has scored in his last two outings, including Tuesday’s superb match-winning hat-trick over Israel, has re-ignited McLeish’s second spell in charge and quelled the gathering critics.
“They were phenomenal finishes and the top strikers would have been proud,” said McLeish yesterday. “He was disappointed on one of the earlier trips and I spoke to him after he’d had his shower and said to him, ‘sorry, but there’s definitely a place for you in this team. I had been going with the 3-5-2 and that didn’t suit the wingers and we tried to do a 3-4-3 which gives wingers a better chance but perfecting that takes a lot of time.”
It would be a surprise if McLeish does not now stick to the 4-3-3 system he has been forced to employ almost by accident following the raft of recent call-offs. As often happens, a way forward has emerged from an unpromising set of circumstances. This time last week there was little reason for optimism. Ryan Jack’s withdrawal within 24 hours of having been called up was the last straw for many. Just what kind of joke operation had Scotland become?
Mikey Devlin then dropped out followed by Kieran Tierney whose absence meant there was little point persisting with a back three. McLeish challenged the assertion there was a lack of appetite for the task in hand. He suggested Tierney was desperate to ignore the medical scans but Scotland could ill afford taking the risk with a player who isn’t theirs.
McLeish received some messages of support from the battalion of wounded warriors left at home. “Two or three texted me saying ‘go and do it’ and ‘prove people wrong’,” he revealed. He now expects everybody will be “desperate” to come back and play for Scotland.
It’s quite a wait until Scotland are next in competitive action – over three months. McLeish has an appointment in Dublin on 2 December for the Euro 2020 qualifying draw but should be allowed to enjoy this sudden granting of clemency before emerging into the storm once more. It’s been a turbulent, draining year for the manager, who will have turned 60 by the time Scotland next play – he reaches this milestone on 21 January.
His re-appointment was met with tepid enthusiasm at best. Even after five defeats in his opening seven matches he held his nerve. Rarely has he sounded rattled.
He’ll reject the theory he stumbled upon his best XI due to circumstances. However, if there was serendipity involved, he surely deserves to feel such grace.
Back in May, while sitting on the edge of the Pacific contemplating a pair of thankless assignments against Peru and Mexico, he learned of the death of his friend and former Aberdeen team-mate Neale Cooper. He gritted his teeth and took the heat for another two defeats on a tour most had written off as completely pointless.
It’s true that of the Scotland starting XI that have helped transform the country’s fortunes over the last two games, only two were even present in the Americas.
By hook or by crook McLeish has reached the point where he was able to send out a team capable of scoring seven times in two games to secure six priceless qualifying points. His competitive record now stands at four defeats in 12 competitive matches over two spells. It’s a more than reasonable record. He has earned the backing of the Tartan Army. Judging from the reception for both the players and coaching staff following the final whistle on Tuesday the fans seem ready to accept McLeish back in their affections after the initial scepticism.
Scotland are now guaranteed third seeds for the standard Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. It’s one pot above where they were when McLeish almost pulled off the miracle of qualifying for Euro 2008 from a group that contained France and Italy.
“Third seeds have done it before,” he said. “That’s a fact. We will now be dangerous third seeds. Being third seeds is progress.”