The last time Alex McLeish was on Scotland duty in the Promised Land he produced a gift for the king. He still proudly remembers his headed assist for Kenny Dalglish to score the second-half winner over Israel in a World Cup qualifier in 1981.
He also recalls the disarray Scotland were in as they attempted to road-test a three-at-the-back system which Jock Stein wisely abandoned at half-time. It hasn’t put him off making changes to the formation now he is back at the helm; nor should it.
Tonight’s Nations League qualifier is McLeish’s first competitive away fixture as manager since the crushing defeat to Georgia in 2007, which means there’s a need to confront a chief regret from his first spell in charge: sticking rigidly to a system against his better judgement. Georgia really is always on his mind.
If Scotland had managed a victory that night in Tbilisi, as they are aiming to do here in Haifa this evening in similar circumstances given it’s a winnable fixture, then everything could well have been different. A desperation that is attached to every campaign these days in light of Scotland’s long exclusion from major finals might not be so keenly felt.
“I went with the same one that was successful for us three days earlier at Hampden against Ukraine,” recalled McLeish.
“We were outnumbered a bit in midfield, but we were also not prone to losing bad goals. We lost one from a corner, a flick on and a scramble in. We were denied a penalty, but aside from that, if I could take things back, I’d have played three in the middle.”
Now he’s considering switching to 3-4-3. James Forrest’s impressive performance for Celtic against St Johnstone last weekend means he’s almost certain to start tonight. What’s the point in McLeish urging those left frustrated last time around to show him what they can do for their clubs if he doesn’t then reward those who do exactly that?
The Celtic winger has done all he can after sitting disconsolately on the bench for both 90 minutes in Scotland’s last double-header; he was one of only two outfield players not to see action. Callum Paterson, absent completely this time around, was the other.
The 2-0 win over Albania proved bittersweet for Forrest. Clearly happy his side had got their campaign off to a promising start, he also watched Stephen O’Donnell thunder down the right flank in the wing-back role.
The Kilmarnock player’s inclusion made it difficult for McLeish to accommodate Forrest. McLeish was sensitive to the player’s predicament. It can’t be easy dealing with the mixed emotions Forrest experienced that night. McLeish made sure they spoke before the players all left. He threw down the gauntlet; prove me wrong. Bhoy has he done that.
“That was the motivation,” beamed McLeish. “I spoke with James very briefly after the Albania game and I could see he was upset and desperate to play. I can’t ask for more than that. It’s hard to guarantee anyone a game.
“That’s probably one of my strengths and, going forward, I will speak to players,” he added, with the on-going issue with Leigh Griffiths still fresh in his mind.
“In my younger days, the one thing Alex Ferguson always did was take you in and tell you to your face.
“I can’t speak for every manager in the modern game, I’m not sure everyone speaks to players. They maybe just put the team up and accept that’s what it is. You have to get used to individual managers.
“Collectively, you can say it. You can say: ‘Look guys, I can’t play everyone’. But we’re really delighted with the boys who are committed to come in. Sometimes they won’t play, one day they will.”
Forrest’s four-goal salvo was expertly timed. McLeish watched a “cock-a-hoop” Forrest arrive at the squad hotel for the latest gathering. The manager swears Forrest was still carrying the match ball he clutched as he left McDiarmid Park.
“It gives us food for thought,” admitted McLeish. “We need to find the right system for the players who excel in their positions, as James did last Sunday. That doesn’t necessarily mean we play five in midfield all of the time.
We can go 3-4-3 and that gives us scope with the very good wingers we have.
“I think we have to be flexible,” he added. “You look at the World Cup. Russia played four most of the time and then changed to a three – realistically it was a five – at the back.
“We need to be prepared tactically and we have to be prepared to suit certain individuals. With every change, it affects another player, someone else. It’s horses for courses.”
Had things worked out differently, one-time No 1 managerial target Michael O’Neill could have been with Scotland in Israel pondering these potential changes. O’Neill still had some input with Northern Ireland the last side to have faced Israel. McLeish revealed there had been some “good collaboration” with the managerial pair of O’Neill and his assistant, Fifer Austin MacPhee.
However, no-one who saw striker Moanes Dabour’s performance for Red Bull Salzburg in last week’s Europa League victory over Celtic needs any special insight to know his worth.
Israel fell 3-0 to Northern Ireland in Belfast last month though McLeish is adamant the scoreline does not give a true indication of Israel’s potential danger, particularly when they on their own patch.
“They did lose heavily,” he said. “But they actually played some good stuff in the game. We are going to Israel, their territory. We have to show we have got a pair.”
Scotland don’t often head to places where they are aiming to defend a 100 per cent win record. But Israel has been an unusually productive destination after two victories from two visits. McLeish’s regret over Georgia can melt away in the Middle East.