Two victories down, two more to go, if Scotland want to finish second in their World Cup qualifying group and keep alive their dreams of joining in next summer’s action in Russia.
The absence of Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong is an undoubted blow but if someone in the Scotland ranks can emerge from the pack and grab the winning goal in the games against Slovakia and then Slovenia, Gary Caldwell will have no trouble imagining the feelings that will course through their mind.
He knows what it is like to help the country deliver implausible results, after he netted the only goal of the match against France in 2006,
“At the time you don’t know what you’re feeling,” he said. “You’re ecstatic, excited, the noise is huge – but you then have to get back into game mode quickly because you still have to focus. When it finishes and you’ve won a game for Scotland, it always feels bigger because everyone is on your side. it’s not like playing for a club where there’s maybe a divide in your family or whatever, you have the whole country backing you.
“So you have that period of days afterwards, once you get past the instant overriding feeling of relief at winning a game, of enjoyment. There’s no bigger feeling for me in football, especially in a game of this size when it can impact the group so much and give us that opportunity to qualify, considering how long it’s been.”
As Caldwell spoke, earlier this week, the mood was optimistic. The current group of players, he said had more going for them than the squads he played in, some of which got close to the Holy Grail of a major tournament, others that stuttered and never managed to regain their footing.
“I must say I thought the Lithuania game was probably the best Scotland performance I have seen for a number of years. Middle to front was probably the best part of the team but that wasn’t all. Christophe [Berra] and Charlie [Mulgrew] were magnificent that night: in control, showed good experience at the level. They clearly knew what they were doing. They had a goalie behind them, again with good experience and in control, plus we had full backs who could attack but who also defended extremely well on the night. It showed we can win games at international level both home and away but it was the manner in which we did it.
“I can’t remember from my days and since really, as convincing a win as we had that night. The confidence has just kept going and hopefully we take it into these last two games.
“The difference between now and my group is that we had to hang on to win games of football. We played a totally different way. We would look to be defensively sound, stay in games and try to get a goal whether a wonder goal or a set-piece goal. We tried to almost steal games whereas the team now can go and win games, go toe-to-toe.
“In the England game they were the better team lost three poor goals on the night and obviously lost the game but in terms of performance they aren’t just looking to stay in games. They are going to play teams and compete with them on a football level. That is the progress the team has made.”
Caldwell, the former Wigan manager, who is looking for a way back into management after he and Chesterfield parted company a couple of weeks ago, is hopeful that progress can deliver tangible rewards and send Scotland back to a World Cup for the first time since 1998.
Looking at the original squad, the 55-time capped defender said boss Gordon Strachan was blessed by the fact he was able to draw on so many players from one club team, who have grown used to a degree of invincibility and benefit from a better understanding of one another’s game.
“In my day we needed to do a lot more work when we came together. I was coming from Wigan, playing 3-4-3, total football, I was back-foot defending where I was the middle man, I didn’t go and engage everyone. I stepped off because of my lack of pace .Meanwhile Christophe was at Wolves, playing route one football for a team who were very much front-foot defenders, they came and attacked everything.
“Then we came together and had a week to learn how to play together for Scotland. Do we go my way? Do we go his way? Do we meet somewhere in the middle? But, with the Celtic guys now, it’s easier because they know each other’s games so well, they know their strengths, their weaknesses.
“The last two World Cup winners were full of Bayern Munich players and Barcelona players, and that has to have a huge bearing. Five or six is a lot of players who understand each other in a team, and the other players then just have to fit into that.”
The withdrawal of captain Brown, whose absence earlier in the campaign coincided with the nation’s worst group results, and of midfielder Armstrong, may dilute some of that belief but Caldwell believes there are still players in there who have linked up at club level and players who have the ability to win games at this level. Having worked under Strachan at club level, Caldwell also insists the manager will be vital to the fortunes of the country over the coming week.
“He’s great. I loved working with him and played a lot of big games under him and he does take the pressure off you. His planning and attention to detail is second to none, so you fully understand what you are coming up against and what you need to do win the game but in terms of building it up, he actually takes a lot of it off you so that you can just go and play and football.
“Games of this size you almost need to take the pressure off, you don’t need to build yourself up because the atmosphere and the size of the game will do that. You have to process of what you need to do as a footballer to win the game and the gaffer is really good at taking that pressure off you and letting you prepare in the right way.”