Gordon Strachan has urged players and fans to combine and turn Hampden Park into a “special place” against Slovakia tonight.
The famous old stadium could be hosting one of its last World Cup qualifying fixtures, with the Scottish Football Association’s 20-year lease on Hampden due to end in 2020.
The ground is set to be a few thousand fans short of capacity for a must-win game. But supporters will still have a significant part to play as Scotland look to extend their run of victories to three games.
The home side will be almost certain of securing a World Cup play-off place if they beat Slovakia this evening and then win in Slovenia on Sunday night.
They must make maximum use of home advantage before heading to Ljubljana. Strachan conceded Hampden can be a difficult ground at which to perform. The manager stressed supporters are under no obligation to be patient. But the players must aim to hold their nerve on what he anticipated being a long and nervous night.
“I think the fans and the players together make it a special place, I really do,” he said. “It isn’t the easiest place to get it going. At other places the atmosphere instantly hits you. You have to work harder here I think, the players and the fans.
“Listen the atmosphere will change every minute of the game, from ‘yes, this is great,’ to ‘Jesus, here we go’. To depression and back up again and round about. While that is going on with the fans, who are entitled to do that, we have to stay at a level that is not being affected by that.”
Strachan acknowledged the high level at which Celtic are operating at present. Influential pair Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong are absent through injury. However, Scotland could still feature as many as five players from the Champions League club in the starting line-up tonight.
“I think Europe helps that with the Celtic lads,” said the manager. “They have to stay above the excitement and the depression and stay at the same level. That’s what European football gets you.”
Strachan was giving few hints as to his personnel – Christophe Berra was the player chosen to undertake media duties yesterday but it’s understood that while the Hearts defender is certain to start, he won’t be skipper. The manager has been effusive in his praise for Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Barry Bannan this week. Bannan could be in line to partner Darren Fletcher in midfield – although even Fletcher’s participation is not certain.
Hibs’ John McGinn and Celtic’s Callum McGregor, who was a late call-up, are also in contention for midfield berths and scored a double each when their teams fought out a 2-2 draw last weekend.
But Strachan argued that a lot of Bannan’s good work goes unnoticed in Scotland because he is playing in the English Championship.
“People are talking after the weekend about John [McGinn] and Callum [McGregor] and their performances at the weekend, scoring four goals,” said Strachan. “But some of the best performances I’ve seen in the last three weeks have come from Barry Bannan.”
Strachan said Bannan has been in his thoughts “for the last three weeks”. McGregor, he added, has fitted in perfectly since his arrival. “You’d never have thought he was new to this at all,” he said.