Friendlies against World Cup qualifiers Mexico and Peru highlight how much work Alex McLeish still has to do to get Scotland to a tournament
4 June ~ The Scottish season ended shortly before 3am (GMT) Sunday, when our national side, decimated by withdrawals, lost 1-0 to Mexico in the Azteca. Eleven days before another World Cup starts without us, we played in the first stadium to twice host the final.
Worse yet was the previous Wednesday’s 2am kick-off against Peru. Not because Scotland lost 2-0. Blackburn captain Charlie Mulgrew, with 35 caps, was our only experienced starter. But because our first trip to Lima came almost exactly 40 years after the same country defeated us 3-1 at Argentina 78, arguably the most iconic of all our World Cup embarrassments. The SFA’s latest programme of friendlies exceeded self-flagellation – it was an ongoing horror movie.
One by-product of non-qualification is providing the warm-up act for those who have. But in June 2016, six days before the Euros kicked-off, we played France in Metz, flying out of the host nation as every other British and Irish nation flew in. Like this season’s friendlies, that trip was arranged by then SFA chief executive Stewart Regan, who claimed reaching Euro 2020 was Scotland’s priority because Hampden is a tournament venue.
This explains why, after October’s draw in Slovenia ensured a national record 22 years without a tournament, he sacked Gordon Strachan as manager despite a discernible upswing in performances. But not why he put the SFA’s lease of Hampden up for review this August.
As well as the national calamities retrospective, we’re also having our faces rubbed in the fact fewer and fewer countries have gone as long as us without reaching tournaments. Over 700,000 Peruvians applied for tickets for Scotland’s visit, to celebrate their first World Cup qualification in 36 years. Our previous friendly was against a Hungary who ended a 30-year finals drought at Euro 2016. The narrow win in Budapest in March relieved the pressure on Alex McLeish, in just his second game of his second spell as manager. Days earlier we lost a Hampden friendly 1-0, to Costa Rica, who beat us by the same score in our fatal opening game of Italia 90.
Our third performance director in three years, Malky MacKay, became caretaker manager for November’s 1-0 friendly loss against the Netherlands (the opponent we defeated by too little, too late in that hubristic 1978 World Cup). But Regan was fixated on Northern Ireland’s model for ending a tournament hiatus, mainly because it involved “merely” signing manager Michael O’Neill, based in Scotland since his playing days with Dundee United and Hibs.
After being too presumptuous and slow in approaching O’Neill, who rejected the move, Regan himself was sacked in February. His replacement, Ian Maxwell, joins from newly relegated Partick Thistle. McLeish, who left Scotland for Birmingham City in 2007, was an underwhelming if not totally desperate second choice as manager.
The trip to Peru and Mexico yielded nine new caps and no thrashings despite an entire first team remaining at home. (This weekend our Under-21s reached the semi-finals of the prestigious Toulon tournament for the second year running.) Oli McBurnie hit the post in the Azteca – that’s as near as we came to a goal in two games dominated by opponents who’ll be lucky to reach the last 16 in Russia. Scottish international hubris used to be underperforming at a World Cup we thought we could win. Now it’s failing to land a manager who lives in Edinburgh – and perhaps abandoning Hampden Park, the only member of our team guaranteed to reach a tournament anytime soon. Alex Anderson