The Scotland women’s team have played their part in giving Scottish football a much-needed boost. Now it is incumbent on the men’s team to supplement those good vibes.
With this responsibility comes the very real risk of a pratfall. It seems many are often waiting for the Scottish men’s team to fail. If they do on Monday, when their Nations League campaign begins after tonight’s last dress rehearsal against Belgium, the women’s team success in reaching a World Cup finals with a win over Albania earlier this week will be used to damn Alex McLeish’s side.
Even the identity of their opponents this Monday will tempt comparisons if it all goes awry – Scotland’s men are also up against Albania. Shelley Kerr’s side triumphed where so many Scotland sides have failed in the past by winning a must-win game.
McLeish, unprompted, praised their efforts yesterday. The outpouring of joy that was much viewed on social media after the referee’s final whistle ought to inspire the men’s team at the cusp of another new chapter.
“I know Shelley well,” said McLeish. “I have seen her on a few occasions at Oriam and Hampden and know how hard she works and I’m really chuffed for her.
“The ladies team have done the nation proud and it’s up to us to pick that up now. There were great scenes at the end in a stadium [in Shkoder] where I think we’ll be playing soon.
“The boys know all about what they achieved and inside they are probably saying to themselves, ‘[it will] be great if we could do that..’ I think they all want to be part of something where we can finally get to a finals.”
McLeish was in attendance when the Scotland women’s team clinched victory over Poland at St Mirren in April with three late goals. He was reminded of himself in some aspects of their play.
“It was good to see the organisation and to see John Beattie’s daughter [Jennifer] heading the ball 50 yards up the pitch. I thought, ‘that’s brilliant… !’
“Watching it live was more like being a punter. I admire what they do and I admire what Shelley has done with the team. We have to give her fantastic credit for that and the girls for doing it.”
McLeish is right to point out the women’s team have walked the walk. For too long Scottish men’s managers have spoken of wanting to right a historical wrong and qualify for a major finals for the first time since 1998. None has managed it.
Kerr’s side went to Albania and secured the result they needed in nerve-racking circumstances. Scotland, under Gordon Strachan, failed to do likewise in Slovenia in their last competitive game. Requiring a win to secure a play off berth for the World Cup, they drew 2-2 after leading 1-0 at half-time.
If not quite a new breed, McLeish hopes his side might be sufficiently revived by new ideas, and a new skipper, for things to be different this time around.
They will try playing three at the back for a start, chiefly in order to accommodate both Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson, who was appointed captain this week.
Both are left-backs but neither will play as an orthodox left-back – Tierney will likely feature as the left-sided centre-back of the back three and Robertson will be pushed further forward as a left wing-back.
“That’s in my head,” said McLeish when asked about playing three at the back. “But we’re not averse to changing it to four at any given moment. You saw the flexibility of teams at the World Cup. We have got options to do that.”
“I think it’s good to maximise the strengths of the players. I don’t think I can get it right for every single player.”
He won’t dispense with anyone just for the sake of it. Those associated with Strachan’s tenure, such as Robert Snodgrass, have come back into the reckoning, while Charlie Mulgrew, deposed as skipper, will continue to play an important role in defence.
“I never want to discard any of the older guys and I’ve never said ‘he’ll never play for us again’,” noted McLeish. “It’s up to the players to say they want to retire or whatever but we haven’t closed the door on anybody, [including] the older, experienced players. Charlie Mulgrew is still there.
“Charlie’s an experienced head at the back. Snodgrass is back with us, which is great, he’s playing regularly in the West Ham team, albeit they need to get a wee result somewhere along the line to heighten confidence levels. But it doesn’t stop Snoddy’s confidence.
“He’s come here and he has integrated with the guys, with the banter that he has.”
It’s in the gift of Scotland to inspire fans to come to Monday’s less appealing assignment against Albania (current Fifa ranking: 58) by putting on a good show against the team who finished third at this summer’s World Cup. Around 25,000 are expected to be at tonight’s friendly against Roberto Martinez’s side, with potentially a lot fewer on Monday.
“I know the Belgium game is more attractive to the Tartan Army or to Scottish fans in general but it would be great to see them filling the ground [against Albania],” said McLeish.
“Probably it will be difficult to see a full house on Monday night but we and the players and coaches would love to see as many as possible coming to the games. If we get a really positive result against Belgium then hopefully the floodgates will open for the fans coming on Monday.
“When it comes to the Nations League, that is the most important game for us. The two of them are very important. We want to show a good performance level against Belgium, want to show we have the legs to match them and have the skills to hurt them going into the Nations League match, which is competition time.”