There was no doubting Gordon Strachan’s ability to laugh in the face of adversity at Hampden yesterday afternoon. By then he had picked the Scotland team that must inflict a first Group F defeat on visiting Slovenia this evening to avoid Armageddon for another finals tilt and another man to have helmed a perennially failing national team.
That fact begged the question as to whether Strachan had given any headroom to the fact that his latest international XI after four years in post might be the last he will select.
“I never really thought about that when I was picking my team, now that you bring it up. Thanks. Am I going to be living next week? I hope so…” he said. “I know what you’re saying, but I’ve never actually thought while I was picking it ‘aye, this could be the last one of these, so stuff it, I’ll put anybody in. Who cares, it could be the last one.’”
Yet, there was enough reflective comment from Strachan – admirably delivered without any of the prickliness to which he might have reverted when finding himself in such a predicament in the past – to suggest he knows precisely what is at stake for himself and his side.
“Sometimes there’s a clarity to it when you face something like this. There’s no, ‘if we get a draw, there’s this’ and it ends up a good draw. It has to be a win now and it changes everything completely. Whatever comes after that looks after itself but a win changes the landscape.”
And even if it all goes belly-up this evening against currently the second best team in the section and a side that haven’t conceded a goal in their past three qualifiers – holding England to a home draw, before thumping four past a Lithuania side against which Scotland had to scrape a draw – Strachan will still be able to do his best Jimmy Stewart.
“I’ll still be the person I am but at this moment in time I’m the lucky one who gets to lead out a team. I’m the one who’s got to make decisions. I’m good with that. The only thing that matters to me is that it’s three points.
“It’s just three points. Everything else is not there for me. You might think that’s strange but it’s not. I’ve enjoyed myself working with these players but we’re going for these three points. I’m oblivious to anything after that.
“I’m not just lucky to be in football. I’m 60 years old, fit and healthy. Training today was marvellous at Mar Hall. The sun was out, there were kids watching us training. You think, ‘Wow! What a wonderful life.’ The only thing that scares me is not getting three points.”
Strachan enjoys the job as much as ever, he says, and is looking at the stars not down at the gutter when he considers the aftermath of this evening’s skirmish with Slovenia.
“The landscape would change totally, totally,” said Strachan of a Scotland win tonight. Such an outcome would move his side a point behind Slovenia and, at worst, keep them within two points of Slovakia. “If you ask me what I’m concerned about, it’s not that it could be the last game ever or anything like that, it’s how you feel after a victory. That’s the magic of football, that glow you get off of winning a game of football.”
Guessing Strachan’s team for this evening is an impossibility, and he gives little to go on. The absence of Scotland captain Darren Fletcher for what have tended to be obligatory pre-match conference duties for the country’s armband wearer might be read as pre-empting his omission – especially since he was given the full 90 minutes in the grim draw with Canada.
The fact that Leigh Griffiths performed player duties was not an indication of his inclusion, Strachan joked, but rather down to the fact “he was the nearest to us when we left [team hotel] Mar Hall”.
Yet, such is the paucity of striking options, Griffiths does look likely to lead the line. He may not have been a starter for Celtic, but game time for all but Jordan Rhodes in recent weeks has been scant.
Strachan is likely to hand Stuart Armstrong a senior international debut and could throw his Celtic six – Scott Brown, Craig Gordon, James Forrest, Kieran Tierney and Griffiths making up that group – at tonight’s pivotal encounter. His criteria for selecting players – “who’s feeling good about themselves, who’s enjoying every game” – covers the Celtic contingent. It also covers an integral member of Championship leaders Newcastle United, Matt Ritchie. It doesn’t cover many/any central defenders in the Scotland squad, but Charlie Mulgrew and Russell Martin could be the best bets to fill those roles with the Scotland manager glowing about right-back fill-in Ikechi Anya to broadcasters yesterday.
“Sometimes people come along to internationals struggling with their game. It’s very hard to then go and play a big game. It’s like a golfer who’s qualified for the Masters but is struggling when he gets there and he’s playing the hardest course in the world. It’s not a great feeling.
“You have to be fit, because it’ll be a high-tempo game. They have to be adaptable because there’s a couple of ways they play – but you have to hope they change their game to deal with you.
“And that all comes down to who jumps the highest, who wants to run the quickest, who wants to control the game and who wants to be bravest on the ball. Whatever shape we’re playing, these four factors determine how the game will be decided.” And how it is decided, will decide so much else.