ANDY WATSON feels like a player handed an unexpected Scotland recall in his twilight years.
Just a few months ago, he was managing in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier, where he admits the ball doesn’t bounce for half the season.
This morning, he boarded Scotland’s charter flight from Glasgow to Malta ahead of tomorrow’s opening World Cup qualifier. At 56, Watson was taken aback by a second invite to coach at international level.
He worked with Alex McLeish at Hibs and also with McLeish and Roy Aitken during Scotland’s Euro 2008 qualifying campaign and is now revelling as third in command under Gordon Strachan and Mark McGhee. It’s the polar opposite of his previous job with the Derbyshire non-league club Ilkeston.
“My contract at Ilkeston had come to an end. I was just watching the grass grow,” admitted the former Hearts and Hibs midfielder. “Previously, I’d done scouting for the national team through Gordon. I saw I had a missed call from him and I thought he was going to ask me to do the same again. He asked me what I was up to and I said: ‘nothing’. He said: ‘How would you fancy coming to work under Mark and myself?’ I knew in a minute I wanted to do it.
“It’s a lovely experience being back in. I feel like a player who’s got a recall to the squad. Being part of the international set-up against is fantastic. My first day was Tuesday and I was like anybody starting a new job. It was nerve-wracking and exciting and everything else. You’re dealing with international players at the start of a new campaign.”
It’s fair to say those he coached on the training pitch at Mar Hall this week were on a different level to Watson’s last group of players. “I went to Ilkeston as a coach under Gavin [Strachan, Gordon’s son]. He went to Doncaster with Darren Ferguson and I was asked to take over. The remit was to get the young players we had back into mainstream football. The club could get a small fee and then get more in a sell-on fee if they progressed further.
“For four months of the year, the ball doesn’t bounce in that league. It’s life at the sharp end. There were teams like Salford City, Darlington, Blyth Spartans, Stalybridge. The Nevilles were there at Salford but in the first game we beat them 1-0 at our place with a really young side.”
It appears Watson has got one over on the English already. He might need that lucky charm later in the World Cup qualifying series when Scotland meet the Auld Enemy. “Clearly I’m no spring chicken, but I do have experience,” he said. “I’m hoping the qualities I have can be of use to Gordon and Mark. I’m new and fresh, maybe I’ll have different thoughts towards something in training.
“We have an experienced squad with a good deal of youth. The average age has been brought down from 29 to 26. We are in a difficult group. If we can bring all the energy, ability and hard work out of the players, we believe we have a good chance of qualifying.
“Malta are no walkovers, we will need to be at our best, with real energy and quality on the ball to get a result over there. We’re not going to Malta to sit back. We’d like to start with three points but we need to earn the right to play.”
Watson and McLeish took Scotland closer to reaching a major tournament than anyone in the last 18 years. A win over Italy in the final group match would have taken the national team to Euro 2008, but a 2-1 defeat brought dejection on a rain-soaked November night at Hampden.
“Walter, Coisty and TB [Terry Butcher] had been in charge,” recalled Watson. “Alex, myself and Roy Aitken came in during the campaign. We beat Ukraine at Hampden in our first game and the momentum was starting to build. There was a sense that maybe we would make it. In the end, it wasn’t so much the Italy game right at the end. The game that probably nailed us was losing in Georgia.
“We went into the Italy game against a team which won the World Cup the year before. We didn’t freeze, we performed on the night. It was a dreich, horrible night but the whole country was up for it. You could feel it because it was tangible inside the stadium that night.
“We felt the second goal they scored shouldn’t have stood but it left us all so flat. We wanted to qualify and we’d worked so hard. Everybody was pulling so hard. I think the press were even pulling us there. We weren’t favourites in that group but we were in the running for so long. Getting over that last hurdle just stopped us. We need to do it this time.”