The filthy look produced by James McArthur over the suggestion that there was a “downbeat” air to Scotland’s preparations for their trip to Wembley on Friday was the sort you would expect from the Crystal Palace midfielder if he discovered someone had gobbed in his mug of tea.
The World Cup hopes of Gordon Strachan’s side may this week require the unlikeliest of wins over an opponent that hasn’t lost a qualifier for a major finals in seven years after being seriously diminished following the poverty of both results and performance against Lithuania and Slovakia last month but McArthur won’t accept a defeatist (realistic?) tone being projected into the assignment in London in two days’ time.
“I don’t know why people are downbeat,” McArthur snapped. “Obviously you can look at the previous results but this is a chance to go there and create history and we’re looking forward to that challenge. We all remember the good days of beating England and that’s the kind of thing we want to create for the fans, to try and get ourselves back in the group to qualify. We’re looking at it as a great opportunity to try and do something special. When you come away from an international and you feel like you’ve let everybody down, you get low moments. But you have to put them behind you – not forget them, because you want to remember how bad it felt. We’re looking to try and do something special here.”
McArthur’s familiarity with players he comes up against every week – and, with his recent fine form, often matches – perhaps emboldens him to say the Wembley encounter must constantly be considered as “a great opportunity not a really hard game”. “We know the way they play,” he said. “The coverage of the Premier League is such that we know each player’s flaws and what they’re good at. We’ll be trying to make sure we get to the flaws.”
There seems to have been a rush within these borders to talk up England’s flaws. To think that, because they were turfed out of the Euros by Iceland in the summer and have not impressed in this qualifying campaign at all, Scotland can get at them. Yet for all that they are under the charge of interim manager Gareth Southgate after the sorry episode with Sam Allardyce, and for all that they were fortunate to scrape a draw away to Slovenia in his second game in charge after being wholly unimpressive in defeating Malta only 2-0 at Wembley, there is not a player in Gordon Strachan’s squad that would get a game for England.
McArthur doesn’t fall into line with those who say England are over-hyped, or are not the sum of their talented parts: “I think they are a good footballing nation.
“I think they have good players playing in a great, great league,” he said. “They have qualified for every single finals and have been comfortable every time. That is not easy.
“No matter who they put in they have got a strong side. They can take 11 out and put 11 in and they have still got a strong side. We know it is such a tough test, but it is a test we are looking forward to. We have got an opportunity that everyone in Scotland would love – to face our greatest rivals.
“There’s always pressure in a Scotland v England game. They’re favourites to win the game but that’s added pressure when you’re the home team.
“I hope we can thrive on being the underdog. We’ve done it before, beating teams like Croatia and coming so close against teams like Poland, and great nights against the likes of France. We’ve created some special moments and we want to do that against a top nation.”
If such a – let’s face it – rare special moment isn’t conjured up at Wembley, then Strachan is unlikely to remain in post. McArthur maintains that possible turn of events should have every Scotland player busting a gut to pull off an against-the-odds win.
“We want to win it for the manager,” he added. “Every knows that the team and the manager are under pressure to perform here. We obviously want to do it for ourselves and we want to do it for the fans, but we really want to do it for the manager.
“We want him to stay. He is great for the players. He wants us to play football, and that is the kind of manager you want to play under. As players we let him down [in the last double header]. We let him down with the performances and obviously the results. So take everything else away, we just feel that that we owe him a special performance and a special win.”
Fighting talk. What is required are deeds to match.