STUART McCALL is hoping Scotland can overcome their Hampden blues on Tuesday night and spark a much-needed improvement in their home form.
The national stadium used to resemble something of a fortress, but over the past six years, it has been anything but a happy hunting ground for Scotland. They haven’t won a competitive game in Glasgow’s south side for over two years and have taken only two points from their four home games in the current World Cup qualifying campaign.
There have been only four home wins in the last 13 competitive fixtures at Hampden, and even despite the signs of improvement since Gordon Strachan took the baton from Craig Levein early this year, the current manager has overseen defeats in both his home qualifiers so far.
For all the sense of optimism that has slowly returned to the national team following a series of encouraging displays through the summer, McCall, a vital member of Strachan’s backroom team, knows Scotland will have little chance of making genuine progress until they can address their wretched home form. Victory over Croatia in the final game of this underwhelming campaign would represent a first home success over notable opposition since Ukraine were vanquished six years ago tomorrow.
“Ideally, we’d like to finish the campaign on a high,” said McCall. “The two home games we have had …well, the game against Wales was a pretty horrid night for all of us concerned and you would have to look at the game against Belgium and say that they have quality throughout their ranks. They are one of the teams that you could really expect to go on and make a massive impact at the World Cup next summer, but we do know that we need to try and find a way to play at Hampden. We want supporters to come out and back us, the players are desperate to keep a bit of momentum going and the manager has spoken of how we seem to have cracked a way of playing away. Now we need to find a suitable style that works for us when we are at home.”
Despite their difficulties at home, performances on the road against Croatia, England and Macedonia over the past few months have lifted the gloom surrounding the national team. The mood in the camp is upbeat ahead of Tuesday’s match. “That comes from getting results, from playing well and from taking huge amounts of confidence from that,” said McCall. “The players have seen that if they stick together and play a certain way then it can work, that we can get results. We ran England very close at Wembley, we got a win over in Croatia and without getting big results you don’t get that kind of spirit and belief. The results are the key to everything.
“I said it at the time and I’ll say it again, if at 1-1 against Macedonia they had scored a last-minute winner instead of us then I think that it would have been all doom and gloom again and that is how fine a line it is in football. You need a bit of luck and you need to get some momentum. But I would have to say that it is a pleasure to work with this group of players. They are enthusiastic, they work hard and they are passionate about playing for their country. We’d like to think that we can build on recent results but we know that it will be a tough ask against Croatia.”
The Croatians produced a laboured display during the last clash between the nations in Zagreb back in June, but McCall is expecting Igor Stimac’s side to be a more dangerous prospect this time round. “They will be up for it and we need to try and match them,” he said. “They are a quality side and I do suspect there might be a bit about them that is looking for revenge after the result we got over there in June. I still think that we are massive underdogs for the game but we are all up for it. The players here are ready for it and all we can do is go out with a game plan, try to adhere to that and give it our all. There is a good spirit about the place and the lads are all desperate to try and sign off with a victory.”
McCall’s main gig remains managing high-flying Motherwell in the Scottish Premiership, but the 49-year-old admits working as a coach alongside Strachan and his assistant, Mark McGhee, in the Scotland set-up is proving a highly beneficial experience. “I feel as though I have learned so much since coming in and working alongside Gordon and Mark,” said McCall, a former midfielder who played for Scotland at the 1990 World Cup and in the European Championships of 1992 and 1996. “There are small things that I take back to Fir Park such as training drills and a few ideas from training. Gordon is very hands on and although Mark and I have some involvement in that side of things, Gordon does most of it himself. He is an excellent coach and his insights are fantastic. I also think that when you are sitting alongside the two of them there are stories and experiences from within the game that you swap and it can be invaluable.
“There is also the fact that I feel reassured at some level too. The things I believe in, the way I think about football, is shared by them and it can do you a lot of good to talk things over and get various insights into different aspects of the game. I definitely feel as though being at training for the time we are with the Scotland team has made me a better coach. I like the pressure of it, I like the demands of being around the very best players – players who are at the top of their game – and I definitely think that it stands me in great stead when I go back to Motherwell.”