When bands embark on experimental phases they can expect little love from critics and fans alike.
So it might have to be in the case of Alex McLeish’s in-transition Scotland side. The manager is preparing for tomorrow night’s friendly clash with Hungary after what many interpreted as a false start against Costa Rica.
As was spelled out on Friday, goals are not awarded simply for picking younger, less experienced players. Ranking points are not allocated for having good intentions – McLeish has admitted plans for an up-tempo start on Friday faltered.
“We were a little shaky in the way we went about it,” he said yesterday. “Having watched it back again I’m still very disappointed in the way we went about our business in the first half.
“It only takes one player not to do it and the whole plan falls apart,” he added. “That made it look as if we weren’t on the front foot and that was disappointing.”
Despite the grumbles at full-time, McLeish retains the majority of the supporters’ sympathies. He made some bold decisions, some of which paid off, a few which did not. He has acknowledged that while also suggesting isn’t this the point of friendlies? To discover what works and what does not.
“I especially wanted to get off to a really good start but sometimes the first pancake is not the best one,” McLeish said.
Such colourful affirmations might be used against less respected figures. McLeish can count on being spared back-page ridicule for some time yet, rightly so.
However, tomorrow’s meeting with Hungary has swelled in significance. We can expect changes as McLeish attempts to balance expedience with experimentation. It is likely there will be more emphasis on the former this time around. No one wishes to begin their (second) tenure as Scotland manager with two defeats even if McLeish does retain goodwill from his first spell in charge, when he won seven games out of ten.
Few could fail to see the difference when more experienced campaigners such as Callum McGregor and Stuart Armstrong arrived on the scene like the cavalry on Friday.
“The Celtic boys came on and helped us,” said McLeish. “But the change in our approach started at the beginning of the second half. We were much more positive and that’s the kind of tempo I like my teams to play with.”
McGregor’s appearance was actually only his second cap for Scotland after Gordon Strachan resisted calls to utilise him. He, too, is essentially a newcomer to the group, having only earned his first cap in the November friendly against the Netherlands. The midfielder will likely have greater involvement tomorrow night when Scotland seek to engage with the tiresome business of winning football matches. McLeish will be wary of tomorrow night’s assignment since expectations are higher than they were against Costa Rica.
Hungary, after all, lost to Kazakhstan, a side ranked 136 in the world, on the same night Scotland suffered at home to Costa Rica, who underlined that they are a team of worth. Indeed, given the dark memories associated with the Central American country from a Tartan Army point of view, McLeish was badly served by having to step out again against a team so vastly improved from 1990 and for whom Friday was a very important step in their preparations for Russia in under four months’ time.
Still, it won’t have escaped people’s notice that Michael O’Neill, the SFA’s preferred choice to replace Strachan, inspired Northern Ireland to a win on Saturday over South Korea, a team also heading to Russia in the summer. The 20-year-old Queens Park Rangers player Paul Smyth scored the winner for O’Neill’s side on his debut to demonstrate that suggestions Northern Ireland have little else to give could be wide of the mark. It also underlined how winning games even while in transition is possible.
Almost all the Scotland players who emerged after Friday’s defeat offered variations of the same theme: it will take time to find the right blend. “We’ve only had three days’ training with the manager and he’s trying to get over completely new ideas,” said Matt Ritchie, pictured right, who hasn’t travelled to Budapest because of a groin strain. “There are players from different clubs and to get to know them takes time. I think games like Costa Rica are a good exercise for that. You can see even within a game small improvements. Look at the second half compared to the first half and there were improvements. If we continue to progress that quickly then we can be ready for the qualifiers.”
Matt Phillips, a second-half substitute against Costa Rica, pursued a similar line. “We’re still getting to know each other. That’s going to take a little while – a few more training sessions, at the very least – before we gel properly. After that partnerships will start to form. But Friday was a decent start.”
While Scotland could and probably should have gained a draw at Hampden, the opposition were playing within themselves. Hungary, who actually defeated Costa Rica in a friendly late last year, will be a different proposition. They will be desperate to avoid successive defeats on their own patch and have lost just twice in eight meetings against Scotland.
Looking ahead, there are currently three more friendlies scheduled following tomorrow as McLeish tries to settle on a side before the Nations League fixtures kick-off at home to Albania on 10 September. There remain doubts over whether Celtic players will be permitted to travel to Peru and Mexico at the end of the season.
McLeish might not be much nearer knowing his preferred XI even when he returns from the Americas – and when there is little time left to get it right. Rightly or wrongly, knowing there is still a wait before the real action begins provides a degree of comfort now.