Stewart Regan and Malky Mackay made a very public show of being locked in what looked like intense discussions in the centre circle at Pittodrie around 45 minutes before kick-off on Thursday.
It seems inconceivable that Regan hadn’t dropped into this conversation the small matter of a radio interview. Mackay was surely inquisitive about the SFA chief executive’s activities earlier in the day.
“So up to much this afternoon then, Stewart?”
“No, just a mooch around Aberdeen, Malky, a bracing walk down to the beach to clear the head, nothing out of the ordinary.
“No, wait, there was an interview. TalkSPORT. That funny Jim White bloke. I told them you weren’t getting the job. No chance. Not even up for consideration. Other than that it was just your usual match-day, really.”
There has since been talk of Mackay being “Malkied”. He has been depicted as being dealt a bolt from the blue when informed of Regan’s comments on radio. This was not quite the case. But it’s fair to say Mackay didn’t sound overly thrilled at the prospect of returning to working behind a desk at Oriam, having enjoyed a brief taste of management again in the 1-0 defeat by the Netherlands.
Asked if he expected to have a say in the next managerial appointment, he replied: “That is not my call is it?” As for his thoughts on what, in his opinion, the top candidate should be able to bring to the table, he said: “I have no idea. I am coming off the back of the game and I am thinking about that at the moment. That is not my call. That is the board’s call, to actually decide what they would like.”
Such a reaction seems understandable. Mackay did a more than serviceable job of taking the team in what was always going to prove a tricky fixture against Dick Advocaat’s side.
All week the prospect of a player, Ryan Jack, being jeered by his own supporters was raised – and then came to pass. Mackay, meanwhile, was also missing his two most experienced outfield players in Scott Brown and Darren Fletcher, while also looking to blend in several debutants. Added to all this was the surrounding uncertainty of where exactly Scotland go next, and under whom?
Mackay isn’t ruling out ever becoming Scotland manager. It’s just clear it won’t be any time in the near future. “Who knows?” he said. “Who knows what happens in life? I am delighted and proud and honoured to have, not only managed the team, but to have managed them to a performance like that. And to have a group of players who have done their country proud in terms of the way they have played.”
He was glad to answer the call and step into the breach from performance director, SFA credentials already well- established. “They needed to hear there was a leader, somebody they were going to listen to, somebody who wasn’t a lame duck,” he said. “That would not have helped us. They needed clear direction. If nothing else there was clarity.”
What next for Mackay? He now goes back, he said, “to the day job”. He was asked yesterday if he recognises how important this day job is (it’s been described as far more crucial to Scotland’s long-term future than the potentially more temporary manager’s post). “I certainly do,” he said. “Trust me. But everybody does. Everybody works hard. I am proud to do the job I am doing because I think we need to keep that pathway going. We have got to start having our youngsters qualifying for tournaments.
“There has got to be a connection between the under-21s and the first team. There has to be that ability to not just go in and plunder the under-21s because they have got a chance of qualifying. There has to be a pathway coming through, there has to be joined-up thinking.”
Never mind Project Brave, the SFA’s Project Michael O’Neill could he nearing completion. Northern Ireland’s 1-0 defeat by Switzerland in the first leg of their World Cup play-off lengthens the odds of O’Neill’s side being in Russia next summer. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where the Edinburgh-based O’Neill is being unveiled as Scotland manager, possibly as soon as next month.
Mackay has left his mark. He stressed on a number of occasions that Scotland created 18 chances against the Dutch, and while many of these were half-chances, it was indeed a promising performance, one just lacking the admittedly vital commodity of at least one goal.
But the Dutch, whatever their own problems right now, remain a quality side. “When we play middle-ranking European teams you would hope to win,” Mackay reasoned, looking ahead to the start of the Nations League next Autumn.
The erstwhile interim manager has also done his long-term successor a service in relocating Jack to full-back on his debut. Mackay watched as many videos as he could of the Rangers player performing there for the under-21s. He took advice from former St Mirren goalkeeper Campbell Money, now an SFA coach.
“I also watched him recently to see what he is as a player at the moment,” said Mackay, who watched Jack also overcome the jeers of some of his fellow Aberdonians. “I knew that there was a boy who would die to come and play. I told him he was going to play at right back and he said ‘I will play anywhere you want as long as I have got a Scotland strip on’.
“Whether somebody else puts him there going forward is another matter, but we have had a problem at right back,” he added.
Mackay stressed that no opposition player got the better of Jack all night. The same could be said of Kieran Tierney at centre-half. Mackay seems adamant the Celtic player won’t be seen at right-back again for Scotland. If so, it’s another positive legacy of Mackay’s 90 minutes as the Scotland manager.
“Kieran Tierney going there is not the answer. He doesn’t want to be playing there, trust me,” he said.
Tierney turning out at right-back appealed, perhaps as much as anything because it stirred memories of legendary left-back Danny McGrain operating out of position. But the 20-year-old’s commanding performance on Thursday suggested Scotland’s more pressing centre-back problem is now halfway to being solved.