After just seven wins in half a century against their ancient rivals, there’s no shortage of motivation on offer for Scotland, particularly when three points are so desperately needed to revive World Cup ambitions.
But today’s Group F qualifier with England has been set in another context. As with recent Scotland assignments, we are another 90 minutes closer to Gordon Strachan’s potential demise.
So win it for Gordon, Mark McGhee, the Scotland assistant manager, urged the Scottish players earlier this week. With David Moyes already reported to have been identified as the man the Scottish Football Association want next as manager, Strachan’s future will again be up for question in the event of a defeat today.
While he had to agree, as the person picking the players, he is ultimately accountable, Strachan yesterday dismissed any concern for his own welfare.
“I’m OK, I’m fine,” he said. “Funnily enough, I want to win for everyone bar myself. So we’re looking after one another.”
Strachan appealed once more for cool heads on an afternoon when there’s a risk tempers might flare off the pitch as well. Hopefully he wasn’t tempting fate when he made the point about two old rivals “not fighting in the streets anymore, it’s not Culloden and all the rest of it”. Fans are being reminded to turn up early and cooperate with bag searches, while armed police will be on patrol around the stadium. There’s as much at stake off the pitch as on it.
Reminded that he would be required to take responsibility were it all to go wrong, on the pitch at least, Strachan seemed unperturbed. He was as unmoved by the potential consequences of defeat for him personally as he was by events overnight. “What election?” he asked.
“I was up watching Family Guy,” he told reporters later.
Holed up all week at Mar Hall, Scotland’s Renfrewshire base, Strachan has had reason to be preoccupied. He says he already knows his starting side, news of which will be relayed to the players today. There aren’t expected to be too many surprises, although Ryan Fraser, the Bournemouth winger, could come in for his debut at the expense of James Forrest, who lost his place at Celtic towards the end of the season.
Strachan expects those charged with seeking to end England’s 34-match unbeaten run in qualifiers to ignore the question of his own future on an already hugely significant occasion.
Whether Strachan’s job is on the line or not, Scotland require three points to move to within three points of leaders England and back into firm contention for a World Cup play-off place. Today might also count as the last Scotland v England fixture to be played at Hampden, with the SFA set to review the old stadium’s future prior to their lease expiring in 2020.
Strachan advised his players to concentrate on winning for those they love, and are close to, including their team-mates. “As long as you have something that makes you want to win football matches,” he said. “For some I’ve played with it’s all about money, others it’s pride, some it’s to play as long as you can.
“You have to have a target and something that makes you want to win a game of football.
“It’s entirely up to the player. It could be pride, family – do it for your family, do it for your friends. You come out here tomorrow and there’s fans, so you do it for the fans who have backed you all the way, but you also do it for your family, anyone who knows you, and your team-mates, obviously.”
Strachan wants the players to experience “the magic moment”, which, he explained, is the 20 minutes after victory, a rewarding sensation that no amount of training exercises with the Royal Marines can hope to emulate.
“You could have 20 nights out and it wouldn’t have brought the feeling of that [last-minute] Slovenia winner,” he said, with reference to Chris Martin’s campaign-saving strike in March.
This wasn’t meant to sound dismissive of England manager Gareth Southgate’s attempts to instil team spirit by ordering his players to get dressed up in khaki and run across Devon moors.
He understood why Southgate chose such a bonding method.
But, for Strachan, it wasn’t an option – he needed time on the training pitch with his players, several of whom haven’t played a competitive match in weeks.
“All managers sense what their players and the group needs at a time,” said Strachan. “We had to do a wee bit more because a lot of our lads hadn’t played. We had to do more basic stuff.
“He [Southgate] decided to take them off the football field when we needed to get them back on it. I understand that totally.
“The best bond is when you are on the field and in the dressing-room,” he added. “That’s it. I’ve seen it all before. The go-kart days, nights out, golf days. All that happens is they get drunk and start fighting with each other! And ‘this table is better than that table’ when they are drinking. That doesn’t work.
“Anywhere I’ve been it’s been about winning games of football and enjoying that 20 minutes after a game when you celebrate as a group.
“That’s what makes you into a team. That’s what’s happened with Celtic.
“I don’t think it’s go-kart days, drinking days – it’s all about winning games of football to bring team spirit together. And when you see the six Celtic boys together, their team spirit is fantastic.”
Strachan will again pin his hopes on the half-dozen strong corps of treble-winning Celtic players, who haven’t experienced defeat since last year. Even in the context of such a historic season, to feature in a team that beats England at Hampden for the first time since 1985 would surely stand as something very special indeed.