GORDON STRACHAN has admitted he’s been tasked with taking Scotland back to the top stages of international football without any world-class stars.
However, he insisted, the players he has at his disposal, as he faces the challenge of ensuring the Tartan Army are at the finals of a major tournament for the first time since 1998, are the best the country has to offer.
Edinburgh-born Strachan, however, is under no illusions as to the enormity of what he is facing, readily conceding qualifying for the World Cup finals and European Championships is much harder today than it was when he was winning his 50 caps in a dark blue jersey.
After taking charge of his first Scotland game against Estonia at his old stomping ground of Pittodrie early next month, Strachan will make his competitive debut as manager in the World Cup tie against Wales at Hampden on March 22 before facing Serbia away four days later.
The remaining ties, away to Croatia, home to Belgium and away to Macedonia follow before the Scots wrap up a campaign which the vast majority have already conceded is doomed with only a couple of points taken from the opening two matches. Strachan, though, revealed he’ll be “giving it a go”, as he neatly sidestepped the question as to whether he felt if a realistic opportunity to progress still remained although SFA chief executive Stewart Regan insisted the Hampden authorities were in no doubt the 55-year-old was the man to “help rejuvenate” our Brazil qualifying campaign.
Former Aberdeen, Manchester United and Leeds United ace Strachan, whose contract will run until the European Championships in France in 2016, believes his job will be to devise a “system” which best suits his players, although he conceded his Old Trafford and Pittodrie boss Sir Alex Ferguson had the perfect blueprint in that “their system is to try to win games of football”.
It could be some time before the Scots can enjoy the sort of success Strachan enjoyed as an international player, but he believes they are closer than many might think based on what he has seen in recent months. Having been at the opening two qualifying matches, at home to Serbia and Macedonia, both of which Craig Levein’s side drew, he said: “Those games could have gone either way. There weren’t too many chances for either side in both matches but in international football if you take them what a difference it makes. But the standard around Europe has got far, far better. It’s harder now. Back then all we had to do was beat Czechoslovakia twice and we were in the finals.
“Then we go to Wales for the third game and think we’re doing all right here, then Gareth Bale does what he does as a world-class player. Sometimes that happens. I look at Sweden and I think, ‘they’re ordinary’. But then you put [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic in and they become a right good side.
“We’re unfortunate because we do not have anyone of the standard of a Bale or an Ibrahimovic so we’re going to have to work at the team ethic.”
The return of former Hibs striker Steven Fletcher to the international fold was long overdue as far as most Scotland fans were concerned, a fallout between the Sunderland hitman and Levein resulting in the player being cast into the wilderness for many months before the pair were finally reconciled for the national good.
However, Strachan, despite his experience of management at Coventry, Southampton, Celtic and Middlesbrough, admitted even today he was unsure how he might have dealt with the situation surrounding a player he once tried to take from Easter Road to Celtic.
He said: “We all know Steven is a good player. That must have been a hard situation for everyone involved. It didn’t look too good from the outside, but it was a heck of a dilemma for the manager. I couldn’t be sure how I would have handled it myself. You have to be in there, dealing with it. Craig did what he thought was right for the squad.”
Coping with the differing demands of being national team manager compared to those placed on a club boss will, Strachan admitted, take some getting used to, joking his new job is “part-time physically” but “full-time mentally, full-time stress”.
Not having players on a day-to-day basis will be one consideration with, at times, months between matches. He said: “If you fall out with a player at club level you just bring a new one in. International football is not that simple. I’ve rarely fallen out with a player to be honest.
“I do fall out with them but it only lasts a day and we can always make up again. But the demands you put on players at international level is completely different from club football.
“You can be more intense with them at a club because you are paying their wages. You have to get the best from them whichever way you can. But here the players are turning up because they want to turn up. You come here because you want to do it and we actually are just getting a loan of the players for a certain amount of time and then we have to send them back in the same mental state as they arrived.”
Even in today’s world of telephone-number salaries, Strachan believes pulling on that dark blue jersey means much more than money could ever buy, citing his own experiences. He said: “I remember playing against the Republic of Ireland. We got £100 appearance money. It was 60 per cent tax so we got 40 quid after the game.
“In the dressing room before leaving, not even changed, one of the backroom staff gave me a bill for £140 because of the tickets I had to pay for. So it cost me £100 to play for Scotland and then, the next day, I picked up some newspaper and I’d been slaughtered. You do it because it’s something you have wanted to do all your life.
“When I went out to play for Scotland I was doing it for the people watching me, your family and that kind of thing. I remember scoring against West Germany and when I was walking back to the halfway line I was thinking ‘My dad will be jumping about the golf club now with his mates. He’ll be steaming before the night’s out.’ So it depends what your motivation is, but everyone has to have one, whether it is playing for your country, your family or the fans. It has to be something because it’s definitely not the money.”
Strachan insisted he and his family felt the exact same pride when he was asked to become Scotland boss as they did when he played for his country, adamant now is the right time for him to take the job despite having been out of the game for two-and-a-half years after quitting Middlesbrough.
Since then he’s resisted offers, revealing: “Sometimes the people you meet, sometimes the financial side is not right and it is not worthwhile doing. Sometimes you know the club is not going too far, sometimes the place concerned is too far away and I didn’t even know the name or where it was. But this just seems right.”
Although widely touted to succeed Levein after the former Hearts boss was sacked in early November, Strachan admitted that while he’d have been worried had he not been spoken to by the SFA, he’d never set out to become Scotland manager.
Strachan, who intends to continue living in England reckoning he can see far more of his players in action, said: “I have no plans in life, absolutely none. I never had the objective of getting this job. I’m here because of what has happened in my life. I never wanted to go to Manchester United but I ended up there. I turned it down when I was 15 and ten years later ended up there anyway.
“Life is a better journey if you don’t know what is coming. It doesn’t disappoint you too much if you don’t get there.”
Strachan, though, is delighted with the latest twist to a career which has taken him along many of football’s highways and byways. He said: “Everywhere I went people were asking when was I going to take over Scotland and I’d say I haven’t been offered it. People might’ve thought I was being rude, but how could I answer that question? I knew they had not started speaking to people because of the contacts I have but it’s been hard the past couple of weeks keeping it secret.
“The phone has been going like the clappers and I couldn’t pick it up. Even my brothers and sisters didn’t know, just my wife and Gary Pendry, who was my assistant, and my son Gary knew in the second week, not the first.”