It took them long enough but the SFA eventually named Gordon Strachan as Craig Levein’s successor and the 50-times-capped former Scotland midfielder was far less hesitant in naming his assistants: Stuart McCall and Mark McGhee.
The pair have a wealth of experience and knowledge of Scottish football and have both also played and managed in England. McCall being manager of Motherwell may represent a conflict of interest (picture the scene: Scotland have a midweek friendly before Celtic travel to Fir Park, Scott Brown is needlessly risked and picks up an injury…), but, for the time being, Strachan’s judgement should be trusted on both men he has chosen to accompany him on perhaps the biggest challenge of his career.
Certainly both McCall and McGhee are of sufficient calibre to assume these roles and it is pleasing that they are both Scottish; patriot that he is, one suspects that Gordon Strachan wouldn’t have had it any other way. It is not that being Scottish is any kind of pre-requisite to success – oh how far from it! – but the traditionalist in me feels that it is always preferable to have Scots coaching the national team (likewise, English coaching England etc.)
The task that lies ahead of Strachan is a mountainous one; let’s make no mistake about that. No one needs reminding how painfully long it’s been since Scotland qualified for a major tournament and the national team currently languishes in 69th place in the FIFA World Rankings. The ranking system has its flaws but there is no denying that such a slump (in November Scotland fell to their worst position since 2005) is an indictment on the tenure of Craig Levein, which itself was merely following on from years of disappointment.
The arrival of Strachan, the people’s choice, heralds something to be positive about, which is a welcome to change when it comes to musing on the future of the Scotland national team. With it, however, comes a wariness of “being careful what you wish for”. So many people, myself included, have been advocating Strachan for the position of Scotland manager for so long now that it adds to the burden of expectation weighing upon the former Coventry, Southampton, Celtic and Middlesbrough boss.
He brings with him a pedigree that the previous two incumbents – George Burley and Craig Levein – have lacked, and consequently both the confidence and the aspirations of the Tartan Army will be cranked up a notch.
Nevertheless, Strachan will need time, like any other manager, and it will be no easy task to turn around the fortunes of a team that has been stuck in a rut for some time. Scotland can all but say adeus to dreams of Brazil 2014, but Strachan and the SFA know this and his contract runs beyond that to include the Euro 2016 qualifiers. There is no quick fix and it’s good to see that Strachan is in this for the long run.
Scotland are currently propping up World Cup Qualifying Group A with a measly two points from four games but Strachan can use the remainder of the campaign to get to know his players, implement his playing style and look to the future. It is important that Scotland finish strongly to avoid a rankings drop that could prejudice their chances in future campaigns; however, it would also be wise to give experience to players who will feature in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, ahead of those whose international playing days might be behind them by then. Balancing these two imperatives – getting results while preparing for the next campaign – will be tricky but if Strachan gets it right it could be crucial to Scotland’s hopes of reaching France in 2016.
Strachan is sure to recognise these conflicting concerns and maintain a long-term vision. He is a pragmatic manager who insists that in football there are not short passes and long passes, but good ones and bad ones. His Celtic team was often criticised for not being entertaining enough but his record there stands up as one of the best in the club’s history. Three consecutive league titles is a feat only surpassed by legendary figures Willie Maley (twice) and Jock Stein.
Strachan, importantly, also knows how to beat the odds as an underdog. That he reached the FA Cup final with Southampton and twice reached the last sixteen of the Champions League with Celtic is testament to that. It is achievements like these that Scottish fans can draw hope from that their new manager has what it takes to return some sense of pride in the national team.
To help him do so he has a not untalented pool of players at his disposal. Fears persist over the future of captain Darren Fletcher who will miss the rest of this campaign but Scotland are reasonably well-stocked in central midfield with Scott Brown, Charlie Adam, James McArthur and Barry Bannan, to name a few.
A full strength Scotland squad would be drawn, in the main, from the English Premier League, plus a few from the SPL and English Championship, which is indicative of the fact that there are good Scottish players out there and that they are capable of competing at a high level.
That Scotland has a host of international players in the 25-and-under bracket, in addition to the latter two of the aforementioned quartet, such as Robert Snodgrass, Stephen Fletcher, Danny Wilson, Graham Dorrans, Grant Hanley, James Forrest and Jordan Rhodes, suggests potential for the not-too-distant future too.
It’s easy, and often necessary, to be pessimistic as a Scotland fan but the future might not be as bleak as we have become accustomed to expect. With an experienced manager at the helm and some genuine talent in the ranks, maybe we can begin to dream of one day narrowly missing out on qualification again…