He’d seen it all, done it all and bought the T-shirt. Or so he thought. But nothing Gordon Strachan had done in a glittering career encompassing some 40 years in football could prepare him for the night he took charge of Scotland for the first time.
Not the 635 league games he’d played, the 21 seasons out 25 seasons as a player in the top flight in either Scotland or England as he starred for Aberdeen, Manchester United and Leeds United, winning a cabinet full of trophies including, of course, the European Cup Winners Cup on that glorious night when the Dons defeated Real Madrid in Gothenburg.
Not the 50 caps he’d earned pulling on the dark blue of his country or the two World Cup finals in which he played or even after he’d hung up his boots, as a manager in guiding Celtic to three successive SPL titles and into the last 16 of the Champions League, facing clubs like AC Milan, Barcelona and Man U along the way.
For all that experience, Edinburgh-born Strachan, who turns 56 on Saturday, admitted he was a nervous wreck as he readied himself for standing in the dug-out as Scotland boss for the first time, even the familiarity of the surroundings of Pittodrie doing nothing to calm him.
“I’m glad it’s all over,” was his first reaction having enjoyed a narrow but deserved win in his first match, adding: “I must admit in 40 years in football that’s probably the most excited, nervous, whatever you call it, I have been before a game in my life.
“It was an incredible experience. Did it rival my own first cap? Oh yes. I think I feel I have done nearly everything in the game, played everywhere and it kind of blew me away really.”
Having unburdened himself, Strachan was thereafter able to assess and dissect his first 90 minutes, a typically tame friendly, but one which, nevertheless, allowed him to see 17 of his squad in action, admitting there had been bits he liked, bits he felt could be worked on and bits that wouldn’t work.
The win, courtesy of a Charlie Mulgrew goal in the 39th minute, a player he ironically released during his time as boss of Celtic, was, of course, exactly as the script would have had it although facing Estonia was no more than an exercise ahead of Scotland’s remaining World Cup qualifying matches which, with Brazil 2016 already all but out of reach, will see Strachan at least bid to return a little national pride.
Strachan had promised a Scotland on the attack and true to his word he started with an adventurous formation, former Hibs star Steven Fletcher a lone striker but well supported with Chris Burke, scorer of two goals for Birmingham City against Nottingham Forest at the weekend, Shaun Maloney and Steven Naismith operating just behind him.
Scott Brown and Charlie Adam were deployed as the two “sitting” midfielders, allowing full backs Alan Hutton and Mulgrew, neither of whom need much invitation to get forward, to get down the flanks when the opportunity arose.
Strachan’s formation, however, was fluid with both Burke and Naismith dropping either side of Brown and Adam when called upon although Scotland spent much of the first half on the attack with Burke in particular enjoying a productive opening spell, causing Estonian left back Taijo Teniste no end of problems.
Maloney had already forced goalkeeper Sergei Pareiko into a sharp save at his near post with a shot on the turn before good work from Burke presented Fletcher with his first opportunity but the Sunderland hitman, keen to make an impression on his new international boss having been frozen out for so long by Strachan’s predecessor Craig Levein, could only send a tame header onto the roof of the net.
Pareiko managed to block a low shot from Maloney after the Wigan Athletic star had surged through the middle of the visiting defence but Estonia weren’t without a threat themselves, Teniste firing rising shot which Allan McGregor tipped over.
McGregor was only an interested onlooker as another long-range effort from Teniste flew over his bar but the Bestiktas No. 1 was forced into a meaningful save when Konstantin Vassiljev played a clever ball over the top to leave Tarmo Kink with only the goalkeeper to beat.
McGregor was alert to the danger, coming quickly off his line to foil Kink, who spent a short time at Middlesbrough under Strachan, by smothering his shot.
The heavy pitch had caused Strachan to send Celtic winger James Forrest home rather than run the risk of aggravating the slight hamstring problem he’d been suffering and conditions didn’t improve throughout the first half as rain continued to fall.
Scotland were well worth a goal having knocked the ball around with some purpose but just as it looked as if they’d head for a half-time cuppa with nothing to show for their efforts, they made the breakthrough. Igor Morozov was guilty of a crude challenge which left Maloney sprawled on the turf, the free-kick offering Charlie Adam the opportunity to deliver the ball into the danger area.
But while everyone waited for the ball to be played in the air, the midfielder cut back low behind the queue of players waiting along the six-yard line for Mulgrew to hook his left foot round it and drill it beyond Pareiko, a move which had obviously come straight off the training pitch.
Strachan and his assistant Mark McGhee exchanged a quick shake of hands in congratulation but it was then straight back into the continual discussion which had gone on between them throughout, the pair arguing the merits and, presumably, the demerits, of various aspects of their team’s play.
All 12 of the remaining members of Scotland’s squad had stripped and were sitting on the bench, the agreement being each side could use six substitutes. Strachan began doing so immediately on the restart.
Jordan Rhodes, the £8 million Blackburn Rovers striker who Levein had once said wasn’t ready for international football despite his goal-scoring record and having netted against Australia at Easter Road, getting an instant chance to catch Strachan’s eye as he replaced Maloney while Richard Snodgrass came on for Burke.
Rhodes was immediately into the action, taking a high ball from Christophe Berra on his chest before wheeling and sending a shot just over. Naismith did likewise, but with substitutions coming thick and fast what rhythm there had been to the game was, understandably, disrupted.
A little momentum may have been lost, but Mulgrew almost added his, and Scotland’s second, driving onto a loose ball to hammer in a shot which Pareiko fingertipped over.
As the clocked ticked down Scotland were on their way to a unremarkable but merited victory. However, a decent night’s work was almost undone by a moment’s carelessness, Mulgrew knocking the ball inside to Berra unaware of the lurking figure of substitute Jarmo Ahupera. Berra, though, wasn’t sleeping and cleared the danger, earning a wave of thanks from the match-winner.
Mulgrew almost had a hand in a second for the Scots in the final minute, combining well with Kenny Miller for the veteran striker, now plying his trade in Canada but determined to pro-long his career in a dark blue jersey – this his 66th cap – for as long as possible, to fire a low cross into the edge of the six-yard box. For once, though, Rhodes was unable to get the ball out of his feet quickly enough and the chance to put a gloss on the victory was gone. Mulgrew’s goal, though, had allowed Strachan to enjoy his night - and to breath a little easier.
Scotland (4-2-3-1): McGregor; Hutton, Webster, Berra, Mulgrew; Brown (Morrison 61), Adam (McArthur 58); Burke (Snodgrass 46), Maloney (Rhodes 46); Naismith (Commons 75); Fletcher (Miller 67). Substitutes not used: Gilks, Bardsley, Mackie, Martin, Wallace, Phillips.
Estonia (4-4-2): Pareiko; Jaager, Klavan, Morozov, Tineste; Kink (Luts 58), Mosinkov, Vassiljev, Puri (Purje 58); Ojamaa (Kams 73); Oper (Ahjupera 46). Substitutes not used: Meerits, Sisov, Rahn, Kruglov, Voskoboinikov.
Referee: Clement Turpin (France)