Deep in the bowels of Estadio Azteca in the early hours of Sunday morning, a relieved-looking Alex McLeish was asked if he would do it all again. Yes, he said. Yes he would. But then the caveats arrived.
If Scotland had qualified for a World Cup, say one being held in the United States, as it might be in 2026, then yes he might consider such a trip in order to prepare for the heat and altitude they would possibly encounter in a city like Denver. But otherwise, he seemed to suggest, on reflection, no he would not. Not unless there was specific reason.
As was now clear, it’s easier to rely on cooperation from clubs as well as count on players making themselves available if games are organised nearer to home. It’s also more financially viable.
Surprisingly, the Scottish Football Association is unlikely to make any money from its involvement in two sold-out games, one of which where tickets were sold for a face value of around £80. It will be lucky to break even. That wasn’t the sole point of a trip that was foisted on McLeish.
After all, he was not even manager when former SFA chief executive Stewart Regan announced the details and looked forward to Scotland continuing “on its current upward trajectory”. Well, that didn’t quite happen.
McLeish has now lost three of his opening four games since returning as manager, having lost only three in total during his first spell. But, as he said following the latest of these defeats, the 1-0 reversal against Mexico, he can’t afford to let personal vanity get in the way of re-moulding Scotland.
It’s likely his record will stand at four defeats from five come the final whistle of September’s clash with a formidable Belgium side, Scotland’s next assignment. He is suffering for a schedule that was being worked on long before his first day in the job in February.
McLeish was simply happy to have had some time away with players who may or may not play a significant part in the future. He mentioned before take-off that, if only two gems emerged, then it was worth it. And they have. It’s almost certain Stephen O’Donnell, an emerging international right-back and perhaps now Scotland’s first-choice one, will be included in the squad for the games with Belgium and then Albania, Scotland’s first competitive fixture of the year.
Lewis Morgan is one McLeish might consider depending how and where he starts his season. Scott McKenna is another certain pick.
So these are enough grounds for McLeish to feel satisfied. But the trip was worthwhile for other reasons, not all of them immediately obvious to those not on the ground. This was an opportunity to make friends, which Scotland did. It was also a privilege and surely beneficial for players to experience games in atmospheres that genuinely took the breath away.
We often trail around after Scotland in half-empty stadiums in forgotten corners of Europe. It was pleasurable to be reminded what a big event is, even if the Scots were very much bit-part players in both instances.
The squad took time out from training in Peru to meet the pupils at Lima’s Markham College, where they trained. In the hotel in Mexico City where they later moved McLeish was happy to grant requests from guests and staff for photographs. He only played a single game in Mexico 86 – much to his chagrin. But those he posed alongside seemed to remember him and were genuinely thrilled.
He gave of his time gladly and patiently answered questions from Peruvian and Mexican journalists alike about their team’s World Cup prospects before even turning his attention to how his own side played. And, while a seriously under-strength Scotland were not great, they were not terrible either.
They were not laughed out of either town. In Mexico City they showed some adventure, which was admirable given the circumstances. McLeish was surely aware his reputation was on the line and yet bravely opted to select a team totalling just 29 appearances. Charlie Mulgrew, owner of this number of caps and more, was left on the bench. McLeish later explained he wanted to try out McKenna and Jack Hendry together in the centre of defence. As you do in Estadio Azteca.
He later laughed about his life expectancy being reduced as McKenna took his manager’s instructions to the extreme and tried to keep possession by chipping to Hendry across the edge of his own box.
No wonder McLeish looked drained afterwards.
But then it was an emotionally punishing trip for another, very significant reason. That Neale Cooper is no longer with us still seems scarcely believable. The news was still raw – too raw – when McLeish found himself trying to find the right words about memorable days at Aberdeen and a great man with wild blond curls rather than the next day’s friendly against Peru in Lima.
The Scotland manager was sitting in a hotel on the edge of the Pacific, breakers crashing against the beach below. It was his first press conference of the tour. Handshakes, welcomes and then we were down to business. Before long news breaking elsewhere meant he was being asked to transport himself to another coastal city a million miles away and a million memories ago.
We ask a lot of our sporting figures. McLeish’s team-mate and longer-time friend was gone in tragic, awful circumstances. The next day’s papers all carried McLeish’s warm words about Cooper. It was hard to capture his devastation.
What a start to a tour that had always seemed bedevilled. Now he has returned, the hope is McLeish can have time and space to grieve before his World Cup punditry duties begin in Qatar. He didn’t get the chance in the Americas while striving to make the best of an assignment he neither desired nor had asked for.