After what must have seemed at times like a probationary year back in charge of Scotland, Alex McLeish deserves to feel far more settled in his position.
It’s just a pity the cast-list of players he must assemble into a side capable of securing away wins in potentially tricky venues such as Kazakhstan keeps changing. Only five are likely to survive from November’s 3-2 victory over Israel, part of a double-header assignment – Scotland also defeated Albania 4-0 four days earlier – which itself was bedevilled by a raft of call-offs.
McLeish’s side nevertheless secured the six points they needed to top their Nations League qualifying group and earn himself some respite as well as a measure of job security.
How the manager must crave some permanence. Even the city where Scotland will seek to kick off their latest qualifying campaign with three points has changed its name since McLeish and his players arrived on Monday.
When they woke up yesterday it was still called Astana, as has been the case for the last 20 years. However, the sudden resignation of president Nursultan Nazarbayev has prompted his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to sanction the capital being re-named after him in tribute. When Scotland fly out of the city on Friday they will depart a city set to be known as Nursultan. The hope is McLeish doesn’t feel the need to change his identity during this latest qualifying campaign to avoid the wrath of the Tartan Army. Over 600 fans have followed Scotland to central Asia in the expectation of seeing them win their opening group game. Kazakhstan might be the ninth largest county on earth but their football team do not enjoy such a high billing when it comes to football, at which they are ranked 117 in the world. Scotland are currently 40.
San Marino, who Scotland play on Sunday night, sit plum last in the rankings in 211th place. Six points to follow the two successive victories with which Scotland ended the year is not an ambitious target to set.
McLeish will hope the latest shake-up does not disrupt his side’s rhythm. While it’s not the team he might have selected were everyone available, only Scott Bain in goal is set to make a competitive debut. The two centre-halves are likely to be Scott McKenna and David Bates. If so, it will be the third competitive fixture in a row in which they have partnered each other in the centre of defence.
“Momentum is the key in international football,” said McLeish, when he met reporters at the Astana Arena – if this is still its name – last night. “Unfortunately, we don’t own the players, the clubs have them and they go through rigorous seasons. It’s nearing the end of the season and some of them have pulled out with injuries or are getting injuries because of over-fatigue and things like that. A lot of that is not is not in our control. If we could get the momentum of the last two games and that nucleus of those two teams that played then I think we are on the right track.”
The average age of tonight’s side could well be as low be 24.5 – the youngest team at last summer’s World Cup in Russia, for example, were Nigeria, with an average ago of 25.9.
Three years ago a study, conducted by the CIES Football Observatory website, found that Scotland were the oldest team in Europe with an average age of 29. This has clearly changed for the better, though whether it’s been by accident or design is another question. McLeish will not have counted on the age of his goalkeeper dropping ten years but this is the case following Allan McGregor’s sudden retirement. Bain, who is expected to replace the Rangers goalkeeper, is just 27 years old.
The sense of continual change is increased by McLeish’s decision to name a fourth different captain since his return to the post. Celtic midfielder Callum McGregor follows Charlie Mulgrew, Scott McKenna and the indisposed current skipper Andy Robertson.
“I invited Callum to my room for a chat on before we came to the stadium to train,” McLeish explained. “We spoke about other things to do with his game and then I threw it in and said: ‘I’d like him to be the captain for the game’. His eyes lit up.
“It was the same when I told Andy Robertson and big McKenna in Mexico last year. Callum was probably thinking ‘ooft, captain of my country, it’s some honour.’ He’s just a guy who is a great example to every young footballer in Scotland who wants to be a professional. Every time you point something out to Callum he takes it on board, whether it’s good or bad. He just doesn’t get flustered.”
McLeish’s message to the supporters is have belief, because he will ensure the players will. “We are expected to come to places like Kazakhstan and win – we are ranked above them,” he said. “That’s the mentality the players have to get used to. We believe if we get momentum – I use that word again – we can be a threat to anybody.”