The appointment of Gordon Strachan as Scotland manager was met with few dissenting voices. But if opposition was low, so too were expectations, with the former Celtic and Southampton boss expected to affect only minor improvement in a weak and demoralised side.
The motley crew he inherited had, after all, taken just two points from their opening four FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers, and would go on endure the indignity of becoming the first European team officially eliminated from the race to Brazil. Nor was this fate altogether unfamiliar to a nation that has failed to reach each of the last eight major tournaments.
But Strachan, though unable to rescue Scotland’s doomed Brazil 2014 campaign, has surprised everyone by breathing new life into a team seemingly beyond saving. Since he took charge, Croatia have been beaten home and away, Poland and Norway seen off on their own turf, while the Scots - unbeaten in five - have managed to rack up four consecutive clean sheets for the first time since 1997.
That, coincidentally, was the year in which they last qualified for a major finals, and though Strachan remains realistic about his team’s prospects and capabilities, he is pleased simply to have shifted some of the gloom.
“That’s been important,” he told FIFA.com. “If there’s a negativity about the place, it affects everyone: players and fans. People are scared of failure and players can feel the fans’ nervousness when things aren’t going well. You need strong-minded players in those situations. It’s like in golf: can you trust your swing? Most of us can’t, and that’s why we end blasting the ball away into the trees. In football, it’s the same: when things are tough, can you trust your style of play? Can you trust your team-mates? If you can get your players trusting in those things, it’s a massive step. And hopefully that’s where we’re going.”
We have a good idea already of what we’re up against. It’s a cracker of a group for all sorts of reasons.
The extent of Scotland’s progress under Strachan can be objectively charted on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where the victory over Poland took them to 22nd in the world. Given that, just a year earlier, the team had slumped as low as 78th, the intervening trajectory has been nothing short of remarkable. The manager, though, is nothing if not grounded. He knows only too well that his team remain constrained by technical limitations, and it is for that reason that their recovery has been built on defensive solidity.
“The clean sheets have been important and that side of things has been the easiest thing to coach – it always is,” said Strachan. “Wherever you are, stopping goals is easier to coach than creating and scoring goals. You look at football and it has changed again in recent years; it’s back to the days of players taking people on, beating them and winning games with a bit of brilliance. And it’s an unfortunate fact that we don’t have too many of those kind of players.
“If you take the likes of Wales and Sweden, I’d fancy our chances any day against those teams if they didn’t have [Gareth] Bale and [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic. With those two playing, it’s a different ball game altogether. Hopefully, in time, our clubs will start producing that kind of player. But because we don’t have a someone of that standard at the moment, we have to do everything as a group.”
For Strachan, who played in international teams with the likes of Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness - and was himself the last Scot to be voted England’s player of the year - the lowering of sights is unavoidable. Yet it is evident that he is nonetheless enjoying a job to which, already, he seems ideally fitted.
“Results determine everything, of course. You can enjoy most jobs when you’re winning,” he said. “But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a few things. It’s mainly small things like dealing with the media, which seems easy when I compare it to being Celtic manager. I think there’s a genuine goodwill there, a real hope that we do well, and the press guys themselves have probably become fed up knocking the team. It’s also been nice being able to enjoy life at the same time as being a manager, which isn’t always possible. The job of national coach involves a lot of thinking time but, physically, you don’t need to do as much as when you’re a full-time club manager.
“If there’s anything I miss, it’s the day-to-day training ground stuff. But as the players will tell you, I make up for that when I meet them. I don’t have them for long, but as long as you use the time wisely - and the boys themselves are receptive - there’s still time to make an impact on them. We can only make a small difference in the time we have, but small changes can often make a huge difference to results.”
With a UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying campaign against, among others, Germany, Poland and Republic of Ireland now looming, Strachan is hoping that the differences he has made - big and small - can help his team compete for a place in France.
He said: “Our opponents are starting to play now, so we’ll be able to have a real good look at them very soon. But we have a good idea already of what we’re up against. It’s a cracker of a group for all sorts of reasons, with the ‘derby’ against the Republic of Ireland, going up against a great Germany team and playing Poland in an absolutely magnificent stadium. There’s lots there to get excited about.”
For the first time in years, and thanks largely to Strachan, Scotland supporters feel exactly the same.