Scotland manager Gordon Strachan on Friday spoke with Sunday journalists at the end of a week of intense speculation over his position. It followed the humbling 3-0 defeat against Slovakia on Tuesday – which had put another dent to World Cup qualifying hopes on the back of the damaging 1-1 draw at home to Lithuania. Strachan unburdened himself on all aspects of the Scotland job in a fashion not witnessed in his three-and-a-half years in charge. He explained why he thinks he’s still the right man to lead the national side, his reasons for dropping Oliver Burke against Slovakia and his reluctance to start with Leigh Griffiths.
Question: You have had days to reflect since the 3-0 defeat in Slovakia on Tuesday, did you have any thoughts about your future, were you determined to stay on?
Gordon Strachan: As I said after the game, your first thought is for the players, then it is the supporters. The backroom staff, the people who support you, you think ‘och I could do with doing something for them, letting them put a smile back on their faces’. When you get good results it changes everybody, makes them feel better.
There is nothing better than when you look up into the crowd and they are singing and dancing. You turn round and see your coaching staff, think these people gave up their time, the players gave up their time. That is the kind of thing that spurs you on and makes you happy.
It goes through your mind, for the next day or so. Like any traumatic experience, you have to sit back and let the tiredness go away, the disappointment go away. I didn’t sleep for 36 hours. Then it is ‘where do we stand’, ‘what do we want to do’. The outcome of it all was, by Thursday morning, you go: ‘what is the best team, what can we do to make sure we don’t let any goals in at Wembley’.
Since Tuesday night, Wednesday morning, that has been the sequence of how my brain has been turning over during that period. As I sit here now, I have spoken to players, texted players, making sure everyone else is alright and started to put the thinking cap on.
Q: Did you ever think ‘I don’t need this’?
GS: It would be selfish if I ever thought ‘I don’t need this’. Really selfish. I have been so close to cracking it once. [To] remember what it was like when we were jumping about, winning, getting good results, that keeps you [going]. Never at any time do you say ‘I don’t need this’ because the group of people I work with and the people who come to support us, are so fantastic that the memories of getting these results always linger in the back of your head no matter how down you get when you get beaten.
There’s no doubt about it: you get down. There is no tablet you can take, then you stand in front of a camera after a game. It is not easy, you have to try to get a balance between cogent and not being flippant about a result. It is a hard balance to get. So that is my thinking on that one.
Q: You have talked about cracking it as regards reaching a major tournament. Would you accept it is all or nothing against England at Wembley, a win opening the door again on World Cup prospects with defeat a calamity?
GS: No, I don’t agree. Let’s just go for a result first. We would like to go into it feeling more confident about ourselves, or more upbeat – I think the confidence will be fine when we get down there and meet up – but we will look at it and I will leave it to other people what goes on after the game, all I can deal with is what goes on before the game.
Speaking to players, receiving texts from the players – even guys who didn’t play – they’re right up for it again. They want to do something about it. They, like myself, hope the fans can be proud of them, hope we can keep the dream going. That’s why we’re here. I’ve been lucky enough to have played with good groups of players. I want them to feel what it’s like to get to a top tournament, what it’s like to take a group of fans with you, what it’s like to make a whole country proud of you.
Q: Have you watched both games back?
GS: The second goal [in Slovakia] was the one I had a look at. The first one I can see Kieran [Tierney] had a problem at the back post. Somehow they got an extra man in the box and Kieran had to make a decision. I think he made the right decision.
First half against Lithuania, it’s 0-0, Championship football. To be fair, that’s what’s happening at international football these days. Big strikers playing up front, it’s knocked down. Look at the Slovakian centre-forward who’s about 6ft 4 and 16 stone. It’s back to front a bit more.
Away to Slovakia and having that much possession [even if] our team didn’t have a real threat then I could be happy with that. I sat in the dugout and went ‘that’s fine; we’ve got to places we wanted to get through our system’.
That worked. Then you have the chance to put your final cross in or your final attempt at goal and it didn’t work. That’s human error, whatever you want to call it. If I merge that together this is why I sit here and say I’m ready to go down [to Wembley] and the boys will be ready for this.
Q: How could Oliver Burke go from a starter against Lithuania to not even meriting a place on the bench against Slovakia?
GS: There’s a reason behind that and I just felt the Slovakia game was for more experienced players. I explained that to him. To help us either to maintain a victory or change the game, we had Ikechi Anya and James Forrest, who’ve been in that position before. I spoke to the players about that.
Q: Does Leigh Griffiths have to reconcile himself to the fact that he’s mostly going to come off the bench for Scotland?
GS: No, I wouldn’t say that. In the 51 games in the Euro Championships the first 19 goals were scored from set plays. That means you have to have a certain amount of height on the field to defend corner kicks. Give you an example. The [Scotland] team was a lot smaller at 2-0 than it was at 0-0 [in Slovakia] and the first corner kick we get after that, they score with a header. Does that help you with the certain amount of height that you have to have in my team?
There’s absolutely no doubt about it. People can argue that toss and debate it. But that is fact. You need to have a certain amount of height in international football teams to defend set plays.
It’s not just Leigh Griffiths. You’ve got to try and get the balance. I could pick a huge team but there would be a problem passing the ball. I could pick the smallest team and they could pass the ball better. But what we’ve struggled with is physical combat in the middle of the park and set plays.
I’ve got to try and get a balance between height and strength and ability. If you’ve got the whole package then that’s a real bonus. Unfortunately we didn’t have too many with the whole package.
Q: Does Charlie Mulgrew come into contention for England in that respect, then?
GS: We’re looking at players who’ve not played many games. James Morrison, what a player... I can’t remember the last time he played 90 minutes. Charlie Mulgrew... can’t remember the last time he played 90 minutes. [Grant] Hanley hasn’t played too many minutes. It’s trying to get the balance there. You’ve got to get a balance that suits everyone and not one individual.
Q: Just to nail this, are you as committed to this job as day one, and determined to make a success of it, even beyond the England match?
GS: I’ve got to say I love this job. I love working with the people, I love bumping into supporters and I get a great response from them. I love dealing with my backroom staff, with the SFA staff. It’s a fantastic, fantastic job. Do I fear the sack? No I don’t fear the sack because I’m 59, I’m alright, I’ve got loads to do in my life.
Do I fear not working with these players? Yes. Do I fear not working with the staff? Yes. I do not fear getting the sack because really when I wanted to do this, I’ve been so lucky in football to get to places that people only dream of in football.
My thought was how do we get these players, this staff, these fans, everybody to a tournament that I know once you get to a tournament they are so fantastic. That would be the disappointing thing, my only fear is not being able to achieve and help people get to places that I know would be fantastic. So getting the sack, there is no fear of that.
Q: But do you fear the fans turning on you?
GS: Listen, it’s not a great feeling but I’ve got to say even the other night there you may have heard one or two boos but that’s part of the deal. People get disappointed and nervous and get down, we’re all the same but when we go away from the football field we start to go right we’re back in again. That’s the same with football people and football supporters.
There is a disappointment period there and you have to expect some reaction and I’ve not got a problem with it. I don’t sit here and become indignant and think people shouldn’t talk about me. Of course they should because that’s the nature of the game.
So that’s not a problem. We’d all like it to be in a manner that’s civil but I can understand totally why there would be questions and especially people who go away to games and start to get nervous. I get nervous and stressful and the actions can sometimes be really negative but it’s understandable.
Q: If you were to leave it would likely have to be of your own volition then?
GS: I don’t understand that one too well. I think people will make decisions later on. At the moment I just think I am the best man to go down there with the group and get a result. I think I have explained it I have absolutely no fear of the sack and you all know that because life is good for me. I live in a good world. The only thing I want to do is make people happy. I am so lucky that I have done so much, all because I have had good people round me, and I want to bring the same to other people. There would be nothing better than if I could take this nation and the people who have supported us and the players, to a wee bit of recognition. That is all I am thinking of just now.
Q: What is your assessment of group?
GS: You think if I get a 10 per cent improvement from where we are then we can look forward positively to the rest of the group. We had a hard group before [for the Euros]and we were so close then that we do feel we can do something in this one. We have set ourselves back: we are over par compared to what you might have thought we should have done so we need to start getting birdies.
Q: How do you defend yourself against criticisms you are not honest with the fans?
GS: You’ve always got to remember that if I explained to people why I do this, and do that, I might hurt players. That is not going on. It doesn’t happen. There are not hurt players. These guys come along and play for nothing. It might be different if they were getting paid 30, 40 grand a week.
And as for the accusation I don’t speak to fans, I really don’t get that. The BBC, who are meant to be professional at their job, were allowed into our training camp for an afternoon. I spent two-and-a-half hour with journalists answering any questions that had been sent from fans. I spoke to fans that day. I go on radio shows, especially the BBC. I’ve been on with the Cosgrove fella and I’ve answered questions.
I think you are going back to the moment when the BBC asked me to answer questions from viewers on a live broadcast. I believe you have to be more professional than that…
Q: The question didn’t relate to that, but what you said in the post-match Lithuania press conference [about it being ‘the best’ Scotland had played ‘in a long time’]
GS: In all my years as an international manager, Champions League manager, that question’s never come up to any manager at international level or Champions League. I can’t remember anybody saying ‘oh, we’ve got some viewers’ questions here’. Oh right, OK, let’s take some. That doesn’t happen. What you are hoping for is a professional conference like you are having here. And, if you think about it, as you sit here you are asking me questions that people are thinking about. And is there any point I haven’t answered any of your questions?
I could easily have said ‘nah, nah, knock it on the head, let them make up their own story’. I answer questions from the fans every time because you are the people who ask questions for the fans.
All media, and Sky telly, and BT, I do all that and have never once sent out an assistant manager to answer questions after games. I have never dodged any questions after games. I have never missed one of these [Sunday newspaper briefings]. Everybody tells me I have to answer questions for the fans but every question I answer is for the fans and think it is wrong to say otherwise. But what we can’t do is a blatant black and white ‘this guy’s is being left out because he wasn’t good and he’s not got this’, or ‘he’s better at him than this’, you cannot do that. It is impossible.
The vehicle for the fans is you guys [reporters] sitting down and thinking ‘what do the fans want to know’. I have never shied away from it and, believe it or not, I actually enjoy sitting with you guys talking about the football. And at no point have I ever blocked anybody’s question or turned on anybody. No matter what you have written, what you have done, or what you have said about me, I have never held any grudges.
There is no-one in here who I have ever called up and said ‘by the way, I think you are a bit of an arsehole for asking me that question’. Never happened. I know you’ve got to do your job and ask questions. I totally understand that. At this point I’ve given everything I can, but there’s no way at any time will I be telling people about why I left out an individual against another individual. That’s totally unfair and it’s never going to happen.