When Alex McLeish was last in charge of Scotland, such Fifa-ordained phrases as “match day minus one” had yet to form in the head of a marketing guru.
This is how pre-match press conferences are now described. Football has moved on. Some would say it has done so without Scotland.
McLeish is aware of the need to progress with the times. Since his early days at Motherwell, he says, he has been a forward-thinking manager. However, he also wants to tap back into the fervour that enveloped the nation 11 years ago, when he led Scotland to the brink of Euro 2008. The agonising 2-1 defeat by Italy was his last time at Hampden in a working capacity before this evening, when he leads Scotland into a friendly against Costa Rica and what he hopes will be a successful new era.
It says much about Scotland’s decline that some would contend what proved McLeish’s final game in charge was also the last time the nation felt in thrall to the national team. McLeish himself disagrees.
“I kind of felt it when Gordon [Strachan] was on that roll towards the end of the [last] campaign,” he said. “I really thought after the England game we would at least make the play-offs. It was the most exciting period for me since, just witnessing it and coming to some of the games.”
He has friends in the Tartan Army and detects little loss of devotion on their part.
“I can only go on the people I’ve been in contact with,” he said. “I’ve done some charity things and met the Tartan Army in London. They are still passionate about Scotland but we have to change the perception people don’t care. We are the ones who can change things.”
McLeish concedes there was a special feeling around the country in 2007, when there were such high points as a win over France in Paris to celebrate. Scotland might well have reached the European Championship finals in Ukraine and Poland had James McFadden got greater purchase on a chance in the final qualifier against Italy, with the match evenly poised.
“It was a massive game,” recalled McLeish. “And in the week leading up to it, you guys in the press built it up superbly. You knew it was one of the biggest games of your life. At 1-1 my career flashed before my eyes as James McFadden came in at the back stick for a ball across the face of the goal from Kenny [Miller] and could just not connect with it.
“We bombarded the Italians in the second half. Barry Ferguson pounded [Andrea] Pirlo, and I thought: ‘That Pirlo guy must be ready to retire’. I didn’t know what age he was at the time. I think he played for about another ten years to an even better level!
“That’s the type of team we were at the time. Not just a swashbuckling, happy-go-lucky side, we were organised at the back, big David Weir marshalling the troops, as we expect Charlie [Mulgrew] to.”
Football has certainly changed since the night of 11 June 1990 in Genoa, when Scotland fell to a 1-0 defeat by Costa Rica at Italia 90. What was interpreted as a humiliation would be considered a minor triumph now.
Scotland’s opponents on that fateful evening have qualified for another four World Cups, all since the millennium. Scotland, meanwhile, have reached only one more and that was last century.
McLeish initially refused to accept he was at the scene of the crime when the subject was raised, with some inevitability, yesterday, one reporter checking if he had played that evening against Costa Rica. “Don’t think so,” McLeish replied, his sheepishness giving him away.
“Do you remember the Daily Record headline?” McLeish then asked. “It was [a picture of] the globe on the front page: Stop The World We Want To Get Off. At the time I didn’t think it was funny but I can see the humour in it now. It was tough. We were a bit anxious, uptight. It’s that old one, when Scotland are expected to win the game. The psyche with the players is that: ‘we’re meant to win here, we should be giving a big display and the goalie is meant to be hopeless, bombard him with crosses…’
“I think he took 17 out of 20. The Costa Rica coach [Bora Milutinovic] at the time used our press, that we were hot favourites, against us. And we were usurped, unfortunately.”
It was noted Scotland might take that again now, since it would mean actually being involved at the top table for the first time in 20 years. “Yes, we would,” he said. This is why he is here, McLeish stressed – to complete some unfinished business.
“Obviously that is our goal, to get to finals,” he said. “It’s not just about law of averages, we have to work hard to do it. We have to find a way of doing so. We are leaving no stone unturned in terms of the support we give the players, and make it as much of a club feel as possible.”
“It is about winning,” he added. “We had a good unbeaten run with Gordon and we just missed out on the play-offs. We have to find a way to win consistently. Not just good performances. It is about getting a winning mentality.”