As he prepares to take charge of Scotland for the first time tomorrow night, Gordon Strachan has effectively been asked to carry out the same salvation task performed by Walter Smith when he replaced the much-ridiculed Berti Vogts eight years ago, with the team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup all but gone after just two points from three games.
In the end, Smith managed to galvanise the beleaguered national team enough to take the battle for a play-off spot to the penultimate round of fixtures when a 1-0 home defeat by Belarus ultimately did for them. The next campaign was far more fruitful, of course, when Smith and then his successor, Alex McLeish, took the Scots on a gallant adventure which almost yielded Euro 2008 qualification from a Group of Death containing Italy, France and Ukraine.
That was the last genuinely uplifting period for the Scottish national team and it is that spell everyone in the country is hoping Strachan can go close to emulating. Indeed, despite the struggles Scotland have endured since McLeish departed at the end of 2007, there seems to be a genuine sense of expectation that Strachan will get the team competitive again, with many critics citing the presence of previous managers George Burley and Craig Levein as the main hindrance to our hopes in the intervening period.
I backed Levein to the grim end on the basis that I felt he was operating with an extremely limited squad which was ill-equipped to compete with even second-tier nations such as Czech Republic and Serbia. I desperately hope the Strachan regime can prove me wrong by at least salvaging some pride in the current campaign and then making a decent fist of trying to reach Euro 2016.
The new manager must be given time, however, as even the much-revered Smith needed over a year and a half for any kind of revival to really take shape. In his first seven games in charge, Scotland won only twice, while they took only one point from a pair of fixtures against Belarus. The salvation job was gradual and was based on pragmatism rather than panache. With this in mind, don’t expect instant miracles from Strachan.
He has a favourable starter tomorrow night at home to Estonia, a side who, despite making the Euro 2012 play-offs, are probably weaker than all our current World Cup qualification foes. However, even a convincing victory at Pittodrie will tell us little about the prospects for the future as friendlies were the one thing Scotland became particularly good at under Levein, merely providing us all with false hope ahead of the real business of the qualifiers.
Tomorrow’s clash is simply an opportunity for the manager to try and forge some sort of understanding with his squad ahead of next month’s qualifiers at home to Wales and away to Serbia. There will be many who expect Strachan’s influence to ensure at least four points from those fixtures, and while that looks a realistic-enough target, it certainly won’t be easy.
Strachan’s first squad contained all of Levein’s regulars and it is hard to envisage that the personnel and the formation of his starting line-ups, certainly in the immediate future, will differ too greatly from his predecessor’s. The main scope for improvement appears to be in whether or not Strachan’s infectious personality can inspire that little bit extra out of his team that would turn home draws against the likes of Norway, Czech Republic and Serbia into wins, while also picking up the odd result away from home – something Levein and Burley generally failed to do. It will come down to fine margins – as it always does with Scotland – so they could also do with the type of luck which has generally deserted them under the last two managers.
Strachan embarks on his mission with the aid of a feelgood factor which wasn’t there from the outset with Burley and Levein. He is backed up by a couple of ebullient and respected former Scotland internationalists in Mark McGhee and Stuart McCall. And he has at his disposal what, despite a lack of genuine top-level quality, is still widely considered Scotland’s best talent pool in around 15 years.
It must be remembered, however, that so many rival nations have kicked on and left us in our wake. Strachan could prove to be one of the best Scotland managers ever but, such has been the change in the international landscape over the past 20 years or so, it might not be enough to return us to a major finals.
When realism is applied, his key objective for now has to be to restore hope and harmony. The miracles can wait.