EIGHTEEN months ago in Florida, Jürgen Klinsmann’s American team demolished Scotland 5-1 as the Craig Levein era arguably reached its nadir.
The Scots have undergone a much-needed revival over the last year and should be a different proposition for the United States at Hampden Park tonight.
Stuart McCall, one third of Gordon Strachan’s coaching team which has revitalised the national team, is adamant they will be. He remembers heads being buried the morning after that Jacksonville thumping and has worked diligently to ensure there is no repeat. Of the starting line-up that night, only Charlie Mulgrew, James McArthur, Matt Phillips, Scott Brown and Barry Bannan are in this squad for friendlies against the USA and Norway.
With two wins over Croatia and a victory in Macedonia from their last four competitive outings, Scotland are building momentum and dearly want it to continue. McCall believes the key to doing so is to treat both the Americans and Norwegians as competitive opponents.
Strachan has generated real competition within the squad and players are playing for places. “Last year was an end-of-season game, Scotland had to travel, and certainly there is a different vibe at the moment because of recent results and performances,” said McCall.
“That’s nothing against the old management or the squad last year. People are on a high because we’ve had some decent results so, in that regard, America will meet a different Scotland, that’s for sure.
“It’s not a meaningless game, it’s a game for the staff to keep assessing and evaluating players. It’s also a chance for the players to keep impressing and stay in the minds of the management.
“We had a quick word with the boys at the start of the week just to say how well things have been going. It’s only because of what we’ve been doing when we’ve got together. Everyone has put the hard work in prior to the games and we’ve won three out of our last four competitive games. For the gaffer, the staff and the players, we can’t approach this as two friendlies. We want to continue the way we’re playing and the results we’re getting.
“Everyone has turned up with a spring in their step because results have been good recently. There is a little bit more optimism.”
McCall was not involved with the national team during Levein’s tenure, but he remembers well the aftermath of that 5-1 loss against the USA. “I was in Holland with Scotland Under-20s as part of my Pro Licence,” he recalled. “I remember coming down in the morning and asking how the lads got on, and everyone just about put their head in their breakfast. It’s always difficult in end-of-season games, travelling all that way and stuff.
“America have good individual players, there’s no doubt about that and they’re ranked a lot higher than us. We’ve looked back at what we’ve done well over the last couple of games to re-emphasise that. We also looked at little bits of the Americans. As usual, as much as we’ll be aware of them, we’ll just concentrate on us.
“We actually have a lot of players who aren’t actually playing for their clubs at the moment. There’s Barry Bannan, who is in and out, Charlie Adam, Steven Whittaker, Naisy [Steven Naismith]. They can be worked hard without running the legs off them. If you work on something during the week and it pays dividends on a matchday, you enjoy it more. Thankfully, what we’ve been doing has been working of late. There’s no difficulty trying to get the lads tuned in to what you’re doing because there’s optimism in the camp. We don’t want that to go because we’ve treated these games as friendlies. We want to treat them as proper games.
“Everyone who has come in recently, like Barry Bannan and Naisy, will want to do well and keep their places. Other players will see these guys coming in and think, ‘I want a bit of that’. Like Charlie Mulgrew playing centre midfield. I think everyone knows that if they train hard and catch the manager’s eye, there’s a chance they won’t just stay in the squad but stay in the team. There will be a lot of excitement building ahead of the European Championship draw in February and I think we’ve got to carry on that optimism by treating America and Norway as important games. Euro 2016 will be a huge campaign for us where we want to actually qualify.”
Optimism isn’t something the Scottish national team has been used to down the years. Having helped generate the feeling of prosperity, McCall, Strachan and Mark McGhee believe their players are capable of handling it.