The Scotland manager is excellent at deflecting pressure from his players, but he also knows more than anyone what a Wembley victory would mean
10 November ~ With 57 England caps and two domestic cup finals as a player, Gareth Southgate has more Wembley experience than his counterpart in Friday’s Group F World Cup qualifier. But Scotland manager Gordon Strachan also played at Wembley; not for Aston Villa or Middlesbrough but for the ten-man Manchester United, who beat champions Everton in the 1985 FA Cup final. Only if Southgate had managed Manchester United could he match the experience Strachan takes into what could be either man’s final match in charge of their country.
Strachan has managed and played for Scotland against England at Wembley and even led Southampton to the FA Cup final in 2003, when Wembley temporarily moved to Cardiff. But in April 2008 a home defeat by ten-man Motherwell left his Celtic side six points behind Rangers in the Scottish Premier League.
In a country where Old Firm supports are bigger and more hysterical than the Tartan Army, his post-match quotes from Stephen Fry’s autobiography – on the pointlessness of worrying – seemed like an insane resignation speech. The next day Rangers and Dundee United served up a 3-3 draw so exciting no one cared Rangers hadn’t rammed home their advantage. Similarly, as Scotland were thrashed in Trnava last month, Joe Hart’s goalkeeping in Slovenia partially masked England dropping points.
Strachan saved himself in 2008 by exploiting left-field circumstances. The postponement of an earlier Old Firm game meant Celtic hosted the leaders either side of Rangers playing a rare European semi-final; Strachan won his third League title in three years at Parkhead.
England’s labouring under three managers in the last four months, augmented by Slovakia’s uninterest and Lithuania’s improvement, has kept Group F tighter than Scotland deserve – we remain only three points off the top. And Celtic captain Scott Brown’s reversal of his recent international retirement sees the best player in this season’s SPFL timeously reintroduced to Strachan’s midfield.
Stoke midfielder Charlie Adam this week claimed he would have a better chance of being picked under a new manager and that Brown shouldn’t be allowed to come back “just because it’s England”. With international-class defenders thin on Scottish ground, Aston Villa’s Alan Hutton declared he no longer wants to be considered for selection.
New attacking hope Oliver Burke told Sky on Tuesday he was hurt to be dropped by Strachan last month. But he’s back in Friday’s squad along with Blackburn’s Charlie Mulgrew, scorer of the only goal in Strachan’s first game in charge (against Estonia in February 2013).
Claiming the 1-1 draw at home to Lithuania last month was the "best Scotland have played for a long time” drew understandable ridicule. These bouts of apparent irrationality deflect pressure from Strachan’s players and are particularly vital with Scotland’s squad so weak and morale everything.
After Robert Snodgrass’ hat-trick in September’s 5-1 thrashing of Malta, Strachan only praised the rest of the team. Like a grenade thrown into a burning oil well, he creates minor silliness to stem the more dangerous tides of hysteria. His calming of last week’s media questions on poppies, Scotland’s pink strip and Brown’s return demonstrated he’s equally expert in straightforward diplomacy.
October’s 3-0 defeat to a moribund Slovakia had Strachan sympathising with players and fans while clearly considering his own position. Yet he lost 5-0 in Slovakia in his first game as Celtic manager, bringing calls for his head before eventually becoming the first man to guide them to successive Champions League knockout stages, including wins over Manchester United and AC Milan.
To override 18 years of qualification failure Scotland need a symbolic victory. No one knows better than Strachan, who interrupted his honeymoon to attend 1977’s iconic Home Internationals victory, that those always come against England at Wembley. Remaining on the terraces with his wife as Scotland fans invaded the pitch 39 years ago, he is the only Scotsman capable of engineering a win this Friday – thanks to the very calm he’ll maintain whatever the result. Alex Anderson