Fresh faces prompt fresh hope for Scotland

Gordon Strachan, main, has brought in the likes of Ryan Frase to the squad as well as Aberdeen coach Tony Docherty. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Gordon Strachan, main, has brought in the likes of Ryan Frase to the squad as well as Aberdeen coach Tony Docherty. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
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This won’t be the first time Gordon Strachan has faced Canada while on Scotland duty but the national boss is fairly certain that some things have changed.

Wednesday’s friendly at Easter Road is a warm-up for next Sunday’s crucial World Cup qualifier against Slovenia but Strachan remembers sweating more than details in an official tour to the country in summer 1983.

“I only played the 67 games [for Aberdeen, that season] and then went to Canada for three games in June. We actually, in 28, 30 degrees heat, played five-a-side on the full length of the pitch. How good was that? Then we went and played on what wasn’t a plastic pitch but a concrete pitch.

“I think we had 16 players but we counted 23 officials. So about 60 per cent of the party enjoyed themselves! I’ll never forget it. It was that kind of trip.

“The referee in the first game somehow blew the whistle four minutes short [of the 90 minutes]. We had to travel all the way to the dressing room, which was a long trek on a horrible pitch and then the guy came and knocked on the door to say to Jock [Stein, the Scotland manager] that we had to walk all the way back out there to play the last four minutes of the half. Big Jock told him to go forth and multiply.”

The games ended in three Scotland victories and while he expects Canada to be “dogged” on Wednesday, Strachan would happily settle for another win.

The primary aim of the match is to allow players to get to know each other, with a couple of new caps and a handful of others who have not played alongside each other outside training bounce games likely to be given the chance as the manager fully assesses all the options at his disposal ahead of next weekend’s game, which he has already accepted is a must-win.

“At the time we arranged it there were a few players not getting a game for their clubs and I thought they would benefit from a game one way or another,” Strachan explained. “Also after a long break it is good to get back in the swing of things.

“It has been a long period since the England game and I thought it was better to have something else rather than going straight back into a very important game.

“There are a couple of players who the regulars have not played with before and it’s good to get to know their game a wee bit. Obviously, people have seen Tom Cairney and Stuart Armstrong but playing with them is a different thing. Ryan Fraser is new, too, and Jordan [Rhodes] is back in the squad so there are a few lads who haven’t played together and it’s nice for them to understand each other on the pitch and as people as well.

“The game is sometimes quite easy to read but understanding their personality might be a bit different. At this point we might as well get the mistakes out of the way in terms of talking to people and how you can push people’s buttons. You might as well find out before the big game.”

Some of those players are being earmarked for a substitute role only, unless something in training changes his mind, but Strachan says the blend of old and new, regular performers and raw recruits, is something that can pay off.

He likes the fact that there is a freshness to this group. One or two changes in the playing squad and a change on the coaching side, with Aberdeen assistant manager Tony Docherty replacing Andy Watson, who has taken up a coaching role in Oman, means that there should be an extra burst of enthusiasm when everyone meets up today.

“We enjoyed Andy’s company but I enjoyed Tony’s last Sunday. We spent a lot of time together after the Celtic-Rangers game and it is refreshing, it really is. I could see someone who is desperate to get working and give us his ideas. He has a good way about him. He made his points in a manner that was acceptable to everybody.

“He wasn’t too forceful, he didn’t shout and scream but what he said made a lot of sense. I really enjoyed his company and he brought a freshness and hopefully the new players we have brought in will also bring a freshness. And what Tony gave to the coaches, hopefully they will give to the other players. Hopefully their enthusiasm will rub off on the squad.”

But it isn’t a simple case of out with the old as Strachan integrates the new. There are too many players he relies on and who have earned their right to be involved. Having dropped Hearts’ young keeper Jack Hamilton from this squad, he is back with the tried and tested trio of Craig Gordon, David Marshall and Allan McGregor.

Gordon got the nod in the last competitive game, against England, and while Strachan may experiment on Wednesday, he looks to have assumed a marginal advantage over his rivals in the chase for the No 1 shirt for next Sunday’s vital qualifier.

“Over the piece his game has been quite fantastic – his two saves last week against Rangers were fantastic,” Strachan said. “We’ve never doubted his ability and we thought he was a terrific passer of the ball. Under Brendan [Rodgers, his Celtic gaffer] he’s got himself into better positions to receive the ball. It’s like a midfield player – if you get yourself into better positions to receive the ball, you’ll have more time on the ball. Craig and Brendan and the backroom staff have worked on that and he’s a more rounded goalkeeper.”

Strachan says that the likes of Gordon epitomise the spirit and character he desires in all of his players, having had to bide his time waiting for a competitive start due to his lengthy injury lay-off and then his place further down the pecking order. With players like Rhodes and Oliver Burke back in the fold they need to press for inclusion, while a return for Charlie Mulgrew is an example of that tenacity paying off.

“If you stick at it like Craig did then often you get rewarded with a big game like the England one. I picked him but with an attitude like his, through his injury and when he wasn’t getting picked, it’s amazing where you can take yourself.

“Craig’s not got an arrogance of being number one but he thinks he’s as good as anybody else if not better. He knows he can play at the highest level but he respects McGregor, Marshall, Hamilton and the rest. He’s had a couple of knockbacks in life but sometimes these are the things that make you stronger.”

Scotland have suffered more than a few blows. It would be nice to see fortunes change.