A “rejuvenated” Gordon Strachan is confident that Scotland are sufficiently different but retain enough of their old qualities to reverse the trend of failing to qualify for major finals.
The manager hasn’t implemented change for the sake of change, he insisted. Some alterations, like Scott Brown’s international retirement, have been forced upon him.
But young players such as Oliver Burke and John McGinn have been introduced to the squad because they have proved they are good enough.
“We always look forward to things but this has been a bonus, the younger faces coming in,” he said. “They’re really enthusiastic, although in saying that the older ones have come back really enthusiastic as well, the ones who have been with us for a while.
“James Forrest coming back, it’s like a new player, so is Robert Snodgrass.”
Tonight, of course, is a first testing ground for this “new Scotland”. There are more difficult international assignments than facing Malta but this itself heaps pressure on those to whom Strachan is considering handing first competitive international starts.
“That was then, this is now, people come to the fore,” said Strachan yesterday, seeking, finally, to draw a line under the last campaign.
It is a reasonable request. After all, Scotland’s last competitive fixture against Gibraltar, the one where the response of the Tartan Army visibly moved Strachan, was 11 months ago.
Scotland’s Euro 2016 qualifying fate was sealed a few days earlier, against Poland. Tonight is the first of ten games in a 13-month period, during which the manager’s fate will be decided.
If Scotland endure a torrid start – Group F games against Slovakia and Lithuania follow next month – then whether Strachan will finish the campaign in charge will be in serious doubt. Not because SFA chief executive Stewart Regan, and his board members, are inclined to wield the axe. More likely is Strachan himself deciding to step away. But for now, he insists, he feels as upbeat as ever.
He said: “I must say I’ve enjoyed the last five days as much as I’ve enjoyed any training in the last four years. I’ve really enjoyed working with this bunch of lads.
“That’s a real bonus for me. I was looking forward to this myself but the players who have come in have refreshed everything. We have older ones too who are refreshed but the younger ones are naturally enthusiastic. But it’s not just that, it’s their ability too.
“It’s been really pleasing. It’s been one of those times in football when you sit back and think ‘I like this, this is great’, but the real hard work starts now.
“I can’t remember feeling as rejuvenated as this.”
One of the reasons for his positive state of mind, he explained, was the example set by Lee Wallace. This might seem surprising since the headline news on the eve of today’s match was Wallace’s withdrawal from the squad with a muscle injury.
Some were quick to wonder whether his quick redirection to Belfast for Rangers’ testimonial match v Linfield yesterday indicated where his priorities lie. But Strachan applauded the left-back’s attitude during the few days he was at the team camp, having been called up as a replacement for Celtic’s Kieran Tierney. “Fair play to Lee Wallace for coming up,” he said. “When you turn up, I’m like: ‘How positive can you be?’ He’s turned up despite having a bit of an injury and stood and watched every training session, everything. He wanted to leave it until the last minute on Friday morning to decide he couldn’t make it.
“To see these guys turning up, watching training and then asking questions after it, he went away feeling down about himself but he shouldn’t. He added to the squad and added to my enjoyment of being a coach, just standing talking to him for 15 minutes and going ‘Oh, I never noticed that, that’s interesting, that looks good’.
“For a coach, that is adding to the squad. He was never at any time a negative to the backroom staff, me, the players. He was a plus. That’s one of the criteria for getting here.”
Without saying so in so many words, Strachan is alert to the need to begin a difficult qualifying group with a victory over the poorest-rated team.
“You know me, I’ve never put any levels on it, saying that, we’re looking to win,” he said. “But how did Croatia feel with ten minutes to go here? Only 1-0 up. How did Italy feel (when winning only 1-0 last year) ? How did Austria feel only winning 2-1? We’re the only nation that looks at anyone and thinks, if they don’t have a big population then you’re not any good.
“But other nations kind of show a bit more respect than that. Croatia were probably one of the best teams in the European Championships and only won 1-0 in Malta (in October last year). So we’ve got to give them that due respect.”