Gordon Strachan’s team were left out over summer and must make it to Russia 2018
3 September ~ As much as Scotland’s national team need a good result in Malta this Sunday, in their opening qualifier for the 2018 World Cup, they simply needed the summer to end. In July, while the other four home nations decompressed from their French adventures, the SFA’s performance director resigned after just 13 months.
In August our captain quit international football, the assistant manager publicly criticised the selections of the Under-21 manager and national coach Gordon Strachan had to field “why not us?” questions as his team began looking like the lone failure not just in British Isles football but Scottish sport itself.
Northern Ireland qualified for the Euro 2016 knockout rounds with players from Aberdeen, Kilmarnock and Hamilton Accies, teams Strachan generally ignores when picking his squads. But Andy Murray enjoying further Wimbledon and Olympic tennis glory combined with Team GB’s other Rio triumphs to pile more pressure on our national game.
Instead of assessing a World Cup qualifying tournament and Malta, Sunday’s Group F opponents, we’re still obsessing with Euro 2016 and Wales. This summer Chris Coleman’s side not only swapped places with us as the nation waiting longest to qualify for a tournament but Wales – not England’s oldest rival – became the second home nation to reach a major semi-final.
I regularly claim Strachan needs time because we’ve qualified for nothing since 1998. Wales reaching the semis of their first tournament since 1958 seemed to disprove this. But media retrospectives of the last few months cite the groundwork laid by previous Welsh managers Brian Flynn and John Toshack, as well as Coleman’s assistant Osian Roberts. Brian McClair, a success with Manchester United’s kids, recently stepped down as SFA performance director, stymied in his attempts to produce Scottish talent by the vested interests in SFA and SPFL boardrooms.
With the nation’s media more excited about next week’s Old Firm game – and midfield powerhouse Scott Brown giving up the Scotland armband to concentrate on his Celtic career – the Scotland team need to inspire our kids before they start believing Rangers and Celtic are their national sides.
Strachan’s critics believe it was incompetent to finish fourth in a Euro 2016 qualifying group where three qualified. For me, with the Republic reaching the second round, Poland the quarter-finals and Germany the semis, Scotland are in fact just outside UEFA’s top 16.
But this World Cup group, also featuring Slovakia, Slovenia and Lithuania, leaves no excuses. The one big guns are England, the only home nation not returning from France full of complacency-tempting pride; the one with the new manager and a humiliation to avenge – but the opponent Scotland knows best.
And now Strachan has his potential Gareth Bale. Nineteen-year-old Oliver Burke – strong, fast and scoring so spectacularly for Nottingham Forest that RB Leipzig have just paid £13 million for him – came on for Scotland at Malta’s Ta'Qali stadium three months ago, in a friendly against Italy. We lost only 1-0 against strong opponents but registered zero shots on goal, summing up Scotland over the decades and Strachan’s three-year reign.
And it’s everything which Strachan, Burke and the entire SFA must change before Scotland loses its love of international football altogether. Rather than a criticism, Wales should be our inspiration – and the only people getting dumped should be Malta this weekend. Alex Anderson
Photo by Colin McPherson/WSC Photography: Scotland fans celebrate at the end of their Euro 2016 qualifying victory over Republic of Ireland in 2014, but they ultimately missed out on the tournament