Mark McGhee is a bag of nervous energy as he sits down inside Scotland’s training base in Renfrewshire.
He is preparing for the biggest international fixture of his life and can’t contain his excitement. Dublin beckons and Gordon Strachan’s assistant is itching to get at Republic of Ireland.
If players are eager to get on the pitch at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, McGhee is every bit as enthusiastic. As a player he amassed just four caps, all in friendlies. His time coaching with Scotland under Gordon Strachan could be climbing towards a pinnacle of his international career, depending on how this European Championship qualifier pans out.
McGhee knows the stakes are high. A cup of coffee is delivered to him by a waitress as he talks infectiously about his ambitions as a Scotland. In truth, valium might be more appropriate. A win for the Scots this weekend would secure a double over the Irish after November’s 1-0 win at Celtic Park. More pertinently, it would confirm Strachan’s side as serious contenders to win a group which also contains world champions Germany, Poland and Georgia.
“There is absolutely no doubt that this is the biggest game I’ve been involved in,” says McGhee. “Of course, the next one will be bigger and the one after that but right now it’s the biggest at international level. A lot has to happen in the games left in terms of points gained, that’s when the table starts to take on a focus.
“The Germany game (Scotland’s first game, a 2-1 defeat) came at a point where, even though we did lose, we didn’t lose any sleep over that because it was at a point in the campaign when you had enough time to recover. The games are getting less and less now so the pressure becomes more and more. It’s a big, big game.
“There is a positivity about the game, we can’t wait for it. When we started talking about it earlier among the staff we were all bouncing in our seats and the message was ‘bring it on, we want to get started’.
“Gordon has managed teams at all sorts of levels, I’ve been in play-off finals and been in important games – five Scottish Cup finals, European finals, we’ve all been there and done it. We’ve got players who play in the Premier League every week and the Championship and the Champions League. Even play-off finals like the Norwich game, these are massive games. Our lads and the Irish lads are used to these big atmospheres, in fact they relish it.”
McGhee’s four Scotland caps included two goals, one of them against England, but he feels his playing and coaching experiences at international level cannot compare. “This is hugely different because of the stakes. I never played in a World Cup or a European Championships,” admits the 58-year-old. “I played in a few friendlies, the best one being against England. Everyone is looking in on this and cares. The whole country’s expectations are through the roof so it’s different from anything I was involved in.”
Scotland sit third in Group D, level on ten points with second-placed Germany and one behind group leaders Poland. Ireland are two behind on eight points and are therefore under slightly more pressure than their guests to get a result this weekend. McGhee concedes that Scotland’s performance thus far has been better than expected as they stand a genuine chance of qualifying for Euro 2016.
“It’s exceeded my expectations. The reality is that if you said before the section began: ‘Right, you are playing Georgia home, you’d expect to win that won. Ireland would be a really hard game but we might win it. Germany we probably won’t win and Poland away – you think they are a good side so we might get a draw’ – and we did.
“In a sense, all we’ve done so far is what you would have expected us to do. We’ve not done anything extraordinary yet. I think this represents a game that, if we were to go to the Republic of Ireland and win, then that starts to step into the unusual and we begin to change the dynamic.”
McGhee pinpoints the away fixture in Georgia on September 4 as another potentially pivotal tie. “We’ll know what’s left, what the table is like and the opposition so when we go into the Georgia away game it then becomes massive. We will know one of our rivals are likely to play Gibraltar then we have Germany after that so the games just keep coming. I think all we will do, if we win on Saturday, is give ourselves some peace of mind between now and the Georgia game.”