Scotland: sowing the seeds of recovery
Before the arrival of Gordon Strachan, it was considered laughable that the country could pull itself together sufficiently on the international front to have any hope of reaching Euro 2016. Now, after five wins in 2013, there appears an unabashed expectancy that Scotland will be competing in the French finals in little under two and a half years.
In defence of the one-eyed optimists, what encourages about Scotland’s prospects for 2016 is that this tournament will see the participation of more mediocre European teams than any football finals ever before staged. The bloating – it is not enlargement – of the competition from a 16-team to a 24-team event essentially means standards will drop to accommodate the limitations of teams that Scotland can be very much bracketed in, especially following a ten-month period where Strachan has succeeded in masking such profound shortcomings in defence that appear set to see Scotland as permanent also-rans.
In terms of the FIFA rankings that cover only the European opponents Scotland could be grouped with at the draw in Nice on 23 February next year, Strachan’s side sit in 21st position. Seedings and the format of the qualifying campaign and the actual tournament will not be nailed down until UEFA’s executive committee meeting in Bilbao on 12 December, but Scotland are expected to a be a pot-four team in one of the nine groups. This assumption is based on UEFA employing the previous two qualifying campaigns for major finals and the previous two final tournaments contested to calculate seedings.
If they stick to that format, Scotland will find themselves most likely competing against opponents such as Turkey, Republic of Ireland, Romania, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, and a Norway they nicked a win over on Tuesday for the third place that would take them forward to the play-off. Not a daunting task, but not guaranteed either.
Fixture dates for Euro 2016 will be decided by computer rather than the previous horse-trading between countries, in no small part because UEFA wants to get maximum bang for their television buck with the rejigged format that will see double-headers spread over Thursday-Monday, Friday-Sunday and Saturday-Tuesday, thus ensuring there is live international football on six consecutive days of the designated periods for qualifiers.
Strachan isn’t troubling himself with what any of these administrative aspects might mean to his team in a footballing sense. “I don’t think too much about whether we are third or fourth pot because we’re going to be in a hard group anyway,” he says. “ I look at our group again [from the World Cup] and I think it was hard. Then I look at some other groups and I don’t think it’s the pots, it’s more the luck of the draw. We drew Croatia who were third in the world and then Belgium who ended up being one of the best teams in the world. Serbia were also an excellent side. Then I look at other groups and think ‘I wish I was in that group’. So you can’t be sure – the pot might not make any difference. Being in a higher pot might work against you.”
Strachan knows what the mission is for him and his players should they want to end what would be an 18-year hiatus from major footballing finals in their next qualifying tilt. “The squad and the rest of us should feel great and be happy with what we’ve achieved in the last couple of games,” the Scotland manager says, “but then I look at the teams that have qualified for the World Cup and there are some incredibly good teams out there. If we are to qualify for the next tournament then we have to get even better. There are things we will have to do better to qualify, that’s for sure. I am happy with the quality at the moment and it’s getting better. I’m happy with loads of things, but we need to get even better.
“I’m happy with the discipline around the camp. The whole squad is disciplined, the backroom staff, everyone. It’s all part of what you have to do to achieve anything. Everyone has to be together, the squad, everyone has to be there to back up people that need back-up. I’ve been pleased with the group. And we have to do it as a group because we don’t have the individual players. I looked at [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic v [Cristiano] Ronaldo the other night and I watched [Luka] Modric play for Croatia. People like that are special, special players and we don’t have special players like that at this moment in time.
“So, what we have to do is forge a special bond between the players, an understanding of what you need when you come to us because we play in a certain way and you may have to adapt a wee bit. You have to give them hours of training and work hard in training and be a special person who is part of the squad.
“If you’re not playing, then you are still part of the squad and you have to help each other. When you come along you have to add something to the squad, you can’t take anything from the squad. When you’re not playing you have to add in terms of how you train with the players who are playing, how you help them because your turn will come.”
Judgments about where Scotland will be in two and a half years’ time must inevitably be reserved until Strachan finds himself leading his team in must-win games come next September.
Yet, in terms of the massive rebuilding job required after the grizzly Craig Levein era, Strachan has put more blocks in place until this point than could have been imagined in wildest dreams. He has moulded a Scotland team that appear capable of winning home and away against more adept opposition, and, as against Norway in Molde on Tuesday, winning even when playing poorly. Looking back at his 2013 as Scotland manager that yielded five victories, Strachan is entitled to be chuffed. “It’s just great to see people getting on a plane after they have won, to see people celebrating in the dressing-room. It just makes it all worthwhile and I am hoping for some more. I think there is more in us. I really do think there is more in us.”
Encouragingly, with a 24-team tournament to pitch at, there might not need to be too much more.