Hampden’s home dressing-room bounced with elation late on Sunday night as Scotland players danced and sang their hearts out. Beating Slovenia to keep World Cup qualification hopes alive inspired scenes of joy, relief and jubilation after a week of high pressure.
Gordon Strachan’s satisfied smile would probably have gone unnoticed by Chris Martin, Scott Brown and the rest of the national team. His huge sigh of contentment would certainly have been drowned out by the camaraderie. Which is exactly how the manager wants it.
He was under more strain than anyone, needing victory over Slovenia to safeguard both the qualifying campaign and his job. Martin’s 88th-minute winning goal secured three priceless points after a plethora of missed opportunities in an otherwise strong Scotland performance.
Strachan isn’t getting carried away, nor should anyone else for that matter despite the dressing-room rejoicing. Players seemed revitalised but there is still significant work required to push them from fourth to second in Group F and into a potential play-off position. Next up on the qualifying fixture list is England at Hampden in June.
The 60-year-old was entitled to feel vindicated by his decisions, though, as he strolled around deep in the bowels of Hampden on Sunday night. He bore the relaxed look of a man who knew he’d got pretty much everything correct. If previous criticism was warranted, it seems only right that he is credited for some major calls.
“It was a strange, strange feeling. There was no real stress to it,” said Strachan. “When they started off playing, I thought: ‘Yip, that’s what we’re trying to achieve, that’s what we used the [Canada] game the other night for, to find out who could run, who was fit and who could play with each other.’ I think the satisfying bit comes when you go in the dressing room and they are all leaping about, jumping and singing. It is a pity we don’t see each other for a long time now.”
Selecting Leigh Griffiths at centre-forward was as big a decision as any given his last start for Celtic was back on December 28. He hit the goalframe twice in the first half and still looked fairly sharp before being forced off by a back injury.
“To be fair, it was a big call any way,” admitted Strachan. “We have five strikers and only one of them gets a game. Jordan [Rhodes] has only been getting that in the last four weeks. Before that he wasn’t getting a game either. Griff did a lot of good things for us. You could see the size of their two centre-halves. He was getting knocked and shoved, but he got back up again. I don’t think there was anybody who played badly. Everybody was fantastic.”
The Celtic striker is far too resilient to become downbeat despite his 12th Scotland cap passing without his first international goal.
“No, not at all. How can you get downhearted by leading the line and leading a performance that is as good as we have seen here for a long time? I think he should be very proud of that,” insisted Strachan.
Griffiths’ 19-year-old club colleague, Kieran Tierney, can feel just as gratified. Celtic’s left-back is now Scotland’s right-back for the foreseeable future with Hearts’ Callum Paterson out injured until next season. It was another surprise choice but one which the player more than justified.
“I had it in my mind for ages and I didn’t want to change because I knew what Slovenia were like on the physical side and how they would attack through the middle,” explained Strachan. “People were thinking that Kech [Ikechi Anya] did well in midweek, but I had it in my mind for ages to do that.”
Tierney’s reaction when told of the manager’s plan confirms why he is already a footballer of international standard. “He said: ‘No problem.’ The boys have been calling him Danny McGrain for the last two days. Listen, he was just superb,” smiled Strachan, mindful that right-backs normally fill in on the left side and not the other way round.
“I didn’t think it should be any different, really. There are loads of the guys who have gone to the other side, but when you have got two players like that you have to try and play them both.
“You have to try and get your best players on the pitch. Robertson on the other side just kept bombing on and leaving people in his wake. I also know that Kech is good for 25 minutes when he comes on, that’s for sure.”
Another wise move was handing Stuart Armstrong his international debut – one of six Celtic men in Scotland’s starting line-up. The midfielder left most asking why he hadn’t been introduced earlier in the campaign.
“I always knew his running power was good, but I didn’t know how strong he had become with his running power. It is okay to run, but be strong and run at the same time, that’s what he’s got. That change from that position he had out there to there [wide to centre], which was only about September-time really. It has changed his career. It has definitely helped Celtic and it has helped us. So players make a big difference.”
Armstrong’s threaded through ball to Martin created the opening for the game’s decisive strike. Strachan was coy on the Tartan Army’s booing of the on-loan Fulham forward when he came on as substitute six minutes previously. “I have my own thoughts about that, but I will keep them to myself,” he said. “As I say, he has joined a great club of top players who have had a wee bit of stick from the fans. He is a hero in our eyes, that’s for sure.”
The newly-formed central defensive partnership off Russell Martin and Charlie Mulgrew helped Scotland record their first competitive clean sheet against any nation of note since the 1-0 win over Republic of Ireland in November 2014. “They played well, but you are always looking,” said Strachan, intriguingly.
And so to England. They handed out a convincing 3-0 defeat to the Scots at Wembley in November. However, Sunday has at least renewed some hope within the Tartan Army. “Hopefully. It’s understandable,” said Strachan. “It’s not like I am sitting around saying: ‘Och, I can’t believe they haven’t turned up.’ Of course I can understand that. If you aren’t playing well at anything then nobody really wants to go and see you. If you play well they do.
“It is understandable but I don’t feel it’s offensive to me or the players. That’s just life. At any stadium in the world, if you don’t play well people don’t turn up. There have been stadiums in Scotland in the last couple of years which haven’t been full. If you get the right stuff, then you’re fine.”
Another disciplined, attacking performance with some added conviction in the final third and Scotland could surprise the group leaders at Hampden. Strachan certainly thinks so. The obvious question was put to him regarding whether a repeat of Sunday could see off England. “Yeah,” he replied.
“What I would like is for players to get a regular game now, a real regular game, in the up front area. I think a Griffiths that’s played ten games scores those goals. I think he does that. But it is not easy when you aren’t playing regularly to come out and hit the crossbar and hit the post and keep going, but he did it.”