Another qualifying campaign – Scotland’s tenth since they last reached a major finals – starts tomorrow in Malta against a backdrop of dissatisfaction, possibly even rumbling discontent.
Among the most serious concerns is the contention the manager himself has lost interest. But this has been fiercely denied by his assistant Mark McGhee, who insists Gordon Strachan is still “red hot for it”.
If Scotland return from Malta with anything other than a victory from this World Cup qualifier, the reception back home is certainly guaranteed to be red hot. McGhee agreed that three points are vital if Scotland are to end the trend of failure stretching back to 1999, when Craig Brown’s side lost a two-legged Euro play-off to England.
“If you are going to qualify you need to win games,” he said. “The idea would be to go and make a winning start. That’s what we are planning for here this week.”
On Tuesday Scotland had a training session where those involved were split into three teams of sixes. McGhee’s side, which included Tony Watt, won this mini-competition, a victory revealed with some glee by the assistant manager. But the competitive nature of this contest underlined to him there’s nothing wrong with Strachan’s enthusiasm.
According to McGhee, the manager is as committed as he was on day one, perhaps more so. Strachan knows there is unfinished business to attend to. He knows two qualifying games against England await. Strachan has already asserted Scotland are in need of “a big win” during this campaign.
The manager also knows that another failure will be perceived as a serious blot on his copybook after the perceived failure of the last campaign.
“We understand the pressure we are under, so we’ll take it one game at a time,” said McGhee. “It’s Malta this time and we’ll prepare as well as we can. We’ve good enough players to get a result.”
This remains the feeling despite another setback late yesterday afternoon, when Rangers skipper Lee Wallace withdrew with a reported muscle injury. The left-back’s travel plans were quickly altered from Malta to Belfast, where he has joined his club’s travel party for a testimonial against Linfield.
This latest blow comes on the back of in-form striker Leigh Griffiths dropping out due to a hamstring injury earlier this week. Midfield pair James McArthur, a likely starter, and Kevin McDonald also withdrew because of injury, as did Celtic left-back Kieran Tierney.
Problems upon problems are nothing new for a Scotland manager. But Strachan knows he could be sitting at home in the Midlands worrying only how to entertain his grandchildren. McGhee, however is adamant Strachan, who turns 60 in February, remains in the zone.
“He’s 100 per cent up for this,” said McGhee. “He’s been champing at the bit. He’s red-hot for it. He always gets energised when he sees the players train with the attitude they have.”
But it is reasonable to wonder about Strachan’s appetite for the fray. While he seemed re-energised by the reaction of the Tartan Army following the 6-0 win over Gibraltar in October, this was ten months ago. Strachan subsequently took a few days to decide if he definitely wanted to remain in charge for another campaign, taking time to seek the counsel of those closest to him.
But there was a sharp reminder of the difficulties involved after Scotland arranged friendlies against Italy and France in early summer; Strachan’s side slipped to two dispiriting defeats while failing to muster a shot on target.
The five withdrawals this week, combined with the sniping about Strachan’s original selections, specifically in regard to Ross McCormack’s omission, has helped create a somewhat negative atmosphere in which to begin a new campaign.
“I don’t feel any of that,” stressed McGhee. “You have to discount France and Italy. The Italy game, they were a good team and we were what we were. We had players coming off disappointments and long seasons. We said at the time the France game was one too many. We’re not dwelling on that at all. It’s a fresh start.
“We’ve got a squad with an average age that’s down to 26, with young players who have the chance to play in a World Cup qualifying campaign,” he added.
“For me it’s all positive. I know you have to handle the pressure of expectation. We have got another magnificent sell-out in terms of the 4,500 tickets we have sold to our supporters.”
As Strachan has often said, the only motivation required is the desire to put a smile back on the faces of Scotland’s endlessly loyal supporters. “I go back to what I said after the Nigeria game at Fulham [in 2014], saying to Gordon ‘imagine we got to the finals with this lot’,” said McGhee.
McGhee has another, more personal reason to achieve the ultimate aim of World Cup qualification, whether it is by finishing group winners or via a play-off.
“I want that for my wee boy,” he explained, with reference to his son Archie, who, now seven, is old enough to pose awkward questions.
“I had to spend all summer trying to explain to him why we weren’t at the Euros,” said McGhee.
He quickly asserted an assistant manager’s prerogative – by lumping all the blame on Strachan.
“I just kept pointing the finger at Gordon,” he smiled. “But I want it badly – and I know Gordon does too.”