Alex McLeish admitted his Scotland team were afflicted by nerves after the Tartan Army turned on the SFA during the uninspiring 2-0 win in San Marino. The beleaguered Scotland manager conceded the performance fell short of what was sought following the cataclysmic 3-0 defeat in their Euro 2020 opener three days earlier against Kazakhstan but urged the nation’s support to stick by his players.
McLeish refused to concede that direct qualification from Group I had been made to look forlorn by Russia securing a 4-0 victory in the same Astana Arena where Scotland were humbled on Thursday night. He accepted that his team must play better than they did across the opening double header but maintained that “human” instincts had contributed to the “rut” his team fell into subsequent to taking a fifth minute lead through Kenny McLean, with several uncomfortable moments ensuing before the wins was sealed with a 74th minute Johnny Russell strike.
The petering out of Scotland’s display inbetween times led to chants of “sack the board” and “f*** the SFA” from the near 3,000-strong support that followed their country to the Italy-enclaved microstate, and who jeered the team off at full-time.
“I think they were frustrated that we never kicked on from the first goal,” he said. “We did try to keep things going. But you could see there were one or two nervy clearances, maybe clearing a ball when they could have made a pass. They are human beings, sometimes they get affected. But if they come through that it will make them stronger.
“That’s football. I’ve heard it [booing] over the years since I became a professional, at different stages of my life, my career. That happens in football. You know sometimes the players get a bit nervous about that and that’s why sometimes you don’t see the free-flowing football we perhaps saw in November. Over the two games we had a mountain of changes and it’s never easy when you don’t get momentum and a rhythm and a nucleus of bedding down the team that you want on the pitch, against the top nations as well.
“Stick by the team [I’d say to the fans]. Stick by the Scottish national team, of course. The fans would have been looking for a few goals to build on the first one, it was that interim between the first goal and scoring the second one when we missed a hatful of chances. There is obviously scope there for the players who came on the trip as newcomers, [Marc] McNulty could have had a hat-trick with his three touches in front of goal, he was very unlucky. It was great to see someone get into those positions. We didn’t do enough of that in Kazakhstan but we had the chances towards the end. The second goal settled them. But the guys at the back dealt with the interim nerves.”
McLeish acknowledged the performance in no made up for the failings in Kazakhstan. “Listen it’s been a difficult weekend for us,” he said. “We knew 1-0 or 2-0 was not going to be looked at in any great light at all but it was important for us to win after the disappointment in Kazakhstan. Everybody is hurting on that one. We never quite got the avalanche of goals everyone was looking for but there are reasons for that. There was a little bit of agitation when we didn’t get the second goal, the players got a little bit nervy. They are only human.”
McLeish refused to read too much into Russia blitzing Kazakhstan - which would seem to paint Scotland’s undoing by that nation in an altogether harsher light. The outcome doesn’t, he maintained, mean the die is cast as over who will claim the two qualifications berths in Group I.
“It is early days. The Russians probably watched our video and decided ‘don’t defend the way Scotland did’ for the first two goals especially. That is what it is, we can’t go backwards, we have to look forward. Yes [we can bounce back]. It’s never over. We know the Russians are strong, we know Belgium are favourites, but it’s never over this early in a competition. I think there will be blips in the ensuring games and we have to get better. It’s quite simple. And we need to get our best players in the team. If the Russians and the Belgians don’t get their best players they will have different results also.”
McLeish made six alterations to the side that lost in Kazakhstan, and sprung a major surprise in leaving James Forrest on the bench until he set up the second goal after being brought on with 20 minutes remaining.
“We made a lot of changes, fresh players coming in,” said McLeish. “James has played a lot of football. I explained to him he’s an integral part of the team and the squad. I know he wanted to play, everyone wanted to play, but I said I was going to change the team regardless. There was nothing frightening about that.”