Gordon Strachan was doing his level best yesterday to look on the bright side. However, it’s hard to interpret having his skipper retire from international football on the eve of a new qualifying campaign as anything other than a blow.
The Scotland manager did his damnedest to view Scott Brown’s withdrawal from the scene as presenting a chance for others. Following the manager’s own decision, after a period of reflection, to extend his contract last October, it is his responsibility to find a way to overcome the absence of the influential Celtic midfielder.
But Strachan being forced to do without such a trusted player has to sting slightly. It is not as if Brown’s absence can be attributed to just one of those things – injury, illness or even loss of form.
No, with the opening qualifier against Malta now 12 days away, Brown’s decision to walk away was entirely his own. Compounding the frustration for Strachan is that Brown has begun the season in such good form for Celtic. “The form of his life,” one reporter ventured to Strachan in a question yesterday.
“Well, I don’t know if it is the form of his life,” replied Strachan, before conceding: “He is playing well. He is doing terrific.”
The manager put some further flesh on the bones of last week’s news. He was informed of Brown’s intention to step away by the player himself, via a phone call about a fortnight ago. “And if you ask him, he’ll say he had a real horrendous time plucking up the courage,” said Strachan. “And he didn’t need to, trust me.”
The pair met up after Celtic’s 5-2 Champions League qualifying round win over Hapoel Beer-Sheva last week. Strachan was working as a pundit for BT Sport at the game, where the anchor was Gary Lineker.
The former England striker could not stop enthusing about Brown, who scored Celtic’s fifth goal. This proved awkward for Strachan, considering only he and Brown then knew what was announced two days later: Brown was quitting international football.
“Leigh Griffiths is playing well, can we not just talk about him?” wondered Strachan, while Lineker was lavishing praise on a player whose form was of as much relevance to the Scotland manager as Nir Bitton’s, or any other of Celtic’s non-Scots contingent.
“It was a bit of a strange night with everyone going it is great for Scotland he was man of the match,” recalled Strachan. He later met Brown in person for a chat in the Celtic Park treatment room.
“Everyone was coming in and going, ‘Well done Broony, terrific...you must be delighted he is playing so well’.” Strachan had to reply with a forced smile: “Yes, I am delighted…”
But despite the humour employed by Strachan yesterday, it wasn’t hard to wonder whether, hand on heart, he felt slightly let down. After all, he has stood by Brown, made him skipper in Darren Fletcher’s continued absence and then made sure he retained the armband when Fletcher returned.
Going back further, he paid out a record fee between Scottish clubs nine years ago when signing Brown for Celtic from Hibs. They have a lot of shared history, hence Strachan insisting their relationship will revert to one of “mates” now they are no longer working with one another.
But Strachan might feel he was owed one more campaign from Brown since it is such an important one, containing as it does two clashes with England. It also likely to be Strachan’s last, whatever happens.
The manager made sure he spoke to all those who would be affected, principally his wife, Lesley, before deciding to stay on for another two years following the 6-0 win over Gibraltar. “What did she say?” another reporter wondered.
“Well I’m here,” said Strachan. “I just think this is terrific. I’m really enjoy doing this. There are stresses to it, no doubt about it, but that’s the football world. The prize at the end of it is just so great.”
One of the stresses is working out how to replace Brown’s workrate in midfield, and how to cope without his joie de vivre at squad gatherings. While Darren Fletcher is on hand to reclaim captaincy duties, James McArthur, who is confident he can shake off a knee injury to take his place in the squad, leads the list of candidates to occupy Brown’s position on the park – with Darren Fletcher alongside him presumably.
Other potential replacements include Hibs’ John McGinn and Fulham’s Kevin McDonald, who is yet to play despite being listed in a number of squads. The former Dundee player scored his first goal for Fulham in the 2-2 draw with Cardiff City at the weekend and has been included by Strachan again.
But Strachan isn’t looking for someone to be a replica of Brown or even an approximation. Someone else wondered who he imagined occupying the Brown role in the middle of midfield. “No idea,” said Strachan.
“I don’t look too deeply at that,” he added. “It’s just players I pick and we get on with it. Scott had one style of playing. I’m not going to take somebody out and say, ‘See in training today, could you play exactly like Scott Brown? Maybe score a few more goals? And be a bit taller?’
“You can’t do that. I can’t change them much because I don’t want to, I want to get the best out of them. I might just have to tweak it a wee bit.”
Strachan sounded like he was ready to go again, having admitted he’d arranged “one game too many” in Scotland’s late-season itinerary, which ended with a 3-0 spanking from France.
He spoke once more of wanting “to make the nation smile again”. Strachan was perhaps mindful that Scottish footballers, in contrast to Scottish tennis players, cyclists, rowers and sprinters, are the one band of sportspeople who have conspicuously failed to do so in recent times.
The campaign coming up is Scotland’s tenth since they last qualified for a major finals, which means it will soon be 20 years since France 98. Much is riding on a Scotland manager now bereft of his trusted skipper, and he knows it.