Never mind low energy levels, no one should need to be coaxed into playing for their country against Italy and France.
But Scotland manager Gordon Strachan believes those he has asked to go the extra mile should be grateful they weren’t around in the early 1980s. An end-of-season tour was then likely to involve trudging around North America and getting carpet burns on prototype Astroturf pitches.
Strachan can speak from personal experience. It was 33 years ago this summer when he rounded off a spectacular season with Aberdeen by boarding a plane for Canada. There he added another three meaningless games onto a tally that already stood at more than 60, including a European Cup Winners’ Cup final and Scottish Cup final.
Throw in a memorable rant by manager Alex Ferguson, the players’ reward for their 1-0 win over Rangers at Hampden Park, and Strachan was understandably ready for a rest. Not that he got one. Instead he was ordered to attend an ill-thought-out tour that might have been dubbed “Carry on Canada” by the weary group of players. Strachan described it as “literally torture”.
Hence why he knows players sometimes need a little encouragement to join end-of-season trips. “That’s why we had to make it top sides, to entice some of them,” said Strachan.
But the Scotland manager is enduring some familiar troubles. Derby County striker Chris Martin and full-backs Lee Wallace and Alan Hutton, of Rangers and Aston Villa respectively, are the latest to pull out of next week’s doubleheader with Italy and France.
The Scottish Football Association has not yet issued reasons for their withdrawals, but Wallace was one of the players caught up in the fracas following Saturday’s Scottish Cup final.
Strachan could not have chosen more attractive opposition than two of the favourites at this summer’s Euro 2016 finals. Scotland’s absence from this tournament is why he is doubly keen to arrange such high-profile games against teams able to boast some of the top players in the world.
In recognition of the heavy schedule those such as Celtic’s Craig Gordon and Scott Brown must endure, with Champions League qualification beginning in mid-July, Strachan has left players out of the squad, further reducing his options.
He now wishes Jock Stein had granted him some clemency in the summer of ’83. But at least Canada were not so likely to punish any drop in standards on Scotland’s part.
Strachan is aware those such as Hibs’ John McGinn and Rangers’ Barrie McKay are being asked to make a big step up from Scottish Championship football to tackling two of the best international sides in the world after tiring seasons.
“If you go to the English Premier League there is usually a fantastic standard, Spain has it as well, but at international level you can go from the sublime to the ridiculous,” Strachan said.
“People say we played such-and-such a team and it wasn’t international level. This is top international level. We had to play against Germany and Poland last year. That’s the top level. We need to find out if we can play at this level. It is beneficial for the players, they will be confident and we want to win these games.”
That wasn’t particularly the case on tour in 1983, though Scotland did win all three games against moderate opposition, scoring seven goals in total and conceding none. Strachan scored in the first match against Canada in Vancouver before being substituted with Graeme Souness. He started the next match and then was a half-time substitute in the last match, in Toronto.
“It was torture, literally torture,” he recalled. “We had to play on the old Astroturf in Vancouver, then Edmonton and Toronto. There was 16 of us, that’s all who were there. There were more Scottish officials than there were players, so that wasn’t great.”
He now knows as well as anyone why players who have endured long campaigns must be handled very carefully indeed or else risk burn-out.
“No sports scientists can tell me about it,” said Strachan. “I have been there and done it. I know how it feels. But if you had said to me we were playing France and Italy, and it’s not far away, I would have said: ‘that’s not bad’.”
Scotland are playing Italy in Malta on Sunday night and then head to the north-east French city of Metz, where they take on Didier Deschamps’ France.
Italy manager Antonio Conte yesterday named his 30-man squad for the match with Scotland at the Ta’Quali stadium.
Included in the group, which needs trimming to 23 players prior to the deadline for the finals at the end of this month, are Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, defender Giorgio Chiellini and Paris St Germain midfielder Thiago Motta.
Strachan admits it is a “gamble” to play Italy and France at such a time.
“I might get a rough time because it isn’t my full squad,” he said. “But we took two [squads] the last time and that worked out very positively.”
Scotland beat Czech Republic in Prague 1-0 and then earned another 1-0 victory over Denmark a few days later in their last double-header friendly, when Strachan used more than 30 players and McGinn and Celtic’s Kieran Tierney emerged with flying colours.
He expressed the hope these next two games “can produce another couple of players” ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign, which begins in September.