The break with the Gordon Strachan era has been evident even before Malky Mackay gets round to picking a team for his game in interim charge. Squad announcements under Strachan latterly became all about the in and out – about players in either category.
When Mackay named his squad last week for the friendly with Dick Advocaat’s Dutch team at Pittodrie on Thursday, the in-and-out element was still there. Only this time it centred on the manager himself, and not his personnel. Mackay is only ten months into his job as performance director – a controversial appointment after the racist, homophobic and sexist text messages that derailed his career. The SFA performance role, with its obligation to reshape our entire national game, requires continuity and commitment that Mackay pledged he would provide when taking office in January.
It took many by surprise then that Mackay did not rule himself out of contention as a successor to Strachan last Monday. The expectation was that the inevitable enquiry on the vacancy would result in the 45-year-old saying he already had a job too important to consider anything else. Reflecting on that moment in recent days, Mackay maintained that this was precisely how he handled the subject.
“I’ve been asked to take this for the month,” Mackay said. “I think I was asked the question: ‘Surely any manager who’s worth his salt and actually asked point blank to take the team, who would turn that down?’ And that was right. Why would I lie and say otherwise? Until you get to that point… I have a job and a good job and a fundamentally important job that I’m really enjoying doing, and have put a fair amount of work into over the last ten months. The board have asked me to look after the team just now, which is what I’m doing, then going forward being involved in the performance side of it.
“For the next week I have to make sure the players are led and know exactly what they have to do – and know that in the someone who’s standing there in front of them, looking after the team and making sure that they have confidence when they go out against Holland, they have a manager that knows what he is doing. I hope.”
Mackay has been working feverishly behind the scenes to create better pathways from the under-17s to the under-21s, using contacts and his football knowledge to expose youngsters to different football cultures, and widen their football horizons. He has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of Morocco’s major cities as he seeks to establish links that will allow young Scotland internationals to play teams from all over the globe, with negotiations “ongoing” to arrange a friendly there for the senior side in March.
For the next week, though, Mackay will return to the role of hands-on football manager and he is unabashed about freshening up the entire senior set-up.
“Let’s be clear, Gordon had a group of players who wanted to come and play for him – that’s great because some years, that hasn’t been the case at international level. People don’t want to turn up. His group did.
“We have to keep that, we have to fuel it, and then just tweak things as to how it goes forward in terms of the performance side of the first team with things off the pitch.
“As a manager of a football club, I want to get rid of people who don’t particularly join in or their personalities don’t particularly blend to a group. There is a balance to that, in terms of how good they are and what they actually give to a group. And what they are actually like as people. The more good people you get into a group the more successful you are.
“I don’t have the luxury of that as an international manager but in terms of what they bring next week, I will have a meeting on Day One about how it is going to be, the culture it is going to be. I want buy-in from them and with that you explain what we are going to do and then you see what you get back. The more keen ones you get, the more people who will walk across broken glass to play for Scotland, I will take that all day long.”
Mackay is likely to get buy-in from the Celtic core around which he must build his team – in the form of Kieran Tierney, Leigh Griffiths, Stuart Armstrong, James Forrest, Callum McGregor and Craig Gordon, anyway. It remains to be seen if Scott Brown will be more than a squad presence. All will accord Mackay his place, in part because he has the ear of Brendan Rodgers, the pair having become close during their time at Watford together. Last week Mackay attended Celtic’s Champions League tie against Bayern Munich with England under-21 coach Aidy Boothroyd, another with a Watford connection, and met Rodgers as well as Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell and major shareholder Dermot Desmond.
Mackay is schooled in the diligence that frames Rodgers’ approach. He will seek to bring this into the Scotland set-up with the use of heart monitors for training and through assembling an impressive backroom team, with Southampton senior first team coach Eric Black acting as his assistant.
“Jim Stewart will be there as far as goalkeeping is concerned. Richard Collinge, who is head of medicine at Montreal Impact, will be coming over to be our lead physio. Steve Walker from Rangers will also come up. John Currie from Celtic will also come in as our sports scientist. Neil McIlhargey of Rangers will come in as the head analyst. And Graham Jones of the SFA will lead on the performance staff.
“Eric jumped at the chance when I phoned him, absolutely jumped at it. And I want people to be here. I want people who don’t feel either it’s just their duty or something that just happens. I want people that desperately want to be part of the staff for Scotland and that is something I’ve done with the 17s, 19s and 21s, in terms of just tweaking it and changing things and people who desperately want to come here, and that’s where the club environment comes in and it’s going to go that way with the A squad as well.”
Mackay doesn’t pretend that leading his country from the touchline won’t be other than a huge moment in his life. “It is absolutely and when I was asked I was incredibly humbled and proud,” he said. “Since then there has been a hellae a lot to do and I have been going full steam ahead.”