Whittaker’s ‘bitter-sweet’ memory of debut in Norway

Steven Whittaker gets to the ball ahead of Alejandro Bedoya during Scotland's goalless draw with the United States at Hampden last Friday. Picture: Reuters
Steven Whittaker gets to the ball ahead of Alejandro Bedoya during Scotland's goalless draw with the United States at Hampden last Friday. Picture: Reuters
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HAVING gained at least some measure of revenge on Friday night for the worst result of Craig Levein’s tenure as Scotland manager, Gordon Strachan’s squad will now turn their attention to doing something similar in relation to the nadir of George Burley’s time in charge.

The current international week is providing a form of catharsis for Scotland as Strachan builds towards the start of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign next year.

If the 0-0 draw with the United States at Hampden was hardly a cause for celebration, it at least restored Caledonian credibility against opponents who crushed Levein’s team 5-1 in Florida 18 months earlier.

Tomorrow night in Molde offers another chance to measure the national team’s progress back towards respectability under Strachan. The last time Scotland were in Norway, they lost 4-0 in calamitous circumstances to all but end Burley’s bid to lead them to the 2010 World Cup finals.

For Steven Whittaker, that evening in Oslo in August 2009 was a bitter-sweet experience as he made his senior Scotland debut as a late substitute. Norway were already 3-0 up when he entered the fray, Gary Caldwell having been sent off in the first-half.

“I actually came on at centre-half,” recalled the Norwich City full-back. “Christophe Berra, who had been sent on for one of the strikers when Gary was sent off, got injured and I went on for him just to fill a hole at the back.

“It was nice to make by debut for Scotland but it wasn’t the circumstances you want to make it in. They weren’t great days for Scotland. I was new into the squad, so I was eyeing up what was going on and getting used to the international scene. It’s stuff like that you learn from. Whether it’s good times or bad times, you take the experience from it. Hopefully that put me in good stead for my future international career.”

Whittaker, poised to win his 23rd cap tomorrow, says the mood of optimism in the current Scotland squad is far 
removed from the doom and gloom which surrounded the national team on that previous trip to Norway.

“It’s difficult to say if it’s the best Scotland set-up I’ve been part of because the boys are only training for a short space of time,” he added. “But it’s one of the most positive squads I’ve been in. We’ve got a lot of young players that believe in themselves. The manager’s positivity is flowing through the players. We’re all enjoying international football. Hopefully we can get the results to go with it.

“There’s more of a club spirit in the squad now. The manager’s been straight with us from the start, he wants us all to be here. All the boys have shown him that, no matter what, we all want to play for our country and I think it has shown up in our recent performances.

“I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve always enjoyed going away with Scotland. It breaks up the norm with your club. I’ve always enjoyed it. I think I played nearly 20 times for the under-21s and I’m on 22 now for international caps. I’ve always enjoyed coming away and 
trying to get as many caps as I can.”

Whittaker believes Scotland’s steady improvement under Strachan has also attracted attention south of the border where he now plies his club trade.

“I think people down there have been surprised by some of our recent results,” said the former Hibernian and Rangers player. “Especially the two wins over Croatia. That was fantastic for us and I’m sure people took a look that and thought ‘Scotland are going in the right direction’. We can take belief from that and kick on now.

“The Euro qualifiers don’t start until next September and that feels a long way off. But we’ll just wait to see who we get in the draw and prepare ourselves as best we can.

“I think the game against the USA was another wee step in the right direction. We obviously wanted to play at a higher tempo than we did but it was just the way it panned out. It was a slower tempo than we would have liked to play at.

“In the previous games, we got after teams and looked to be a bit more positive than we were on Friday. But there are still positives there. The clean sheet is obviously nice and it’s an improvement on the last time we played them. If we had played at a better tempo and got at them a little bit, we could have won the game, but the game never allowed us to do that. It was played in a friendly mode but there are still positives there.

“We have taken confidence from our last two fixtures and the results that we’ve had. We’re going into games now believing that we can get results. It was just 0-0 against America, but it’s a clean sheet and a positive we can take into the Norway game.

“Having belief is massive. Individually and as a squad we need to believe in what we’re doing to take the whole thing forward and we’ve done that in the last five or six games under Gordon. He is the most positive person and he’s passed that on to us. We are all believing again.

“We’ll look to improve the tempo of our matches before the next qualifiers start, even though they are friendlies. When it’s competitive, the tempo takes care of itself because you know there’s something at stake, whereas friendlies aren’t quite like that.

“We’ll look to go over to Norway and improve on the performance as well. It’s difficult because Gordon will probably want to look at some different people in different positions. It’s hard to keep the fluency in the team when you change things like that. But whoever’s picked will play for the jersey like always.”