A game that could stand as Malky Mackay’s first and last as Scotland manager might accumulate yet greater significance.
Not since 1970, when they played only four matches, have Scotland survived a full calendar year without losing. This achievement, were it to come by avoiding defeat in Aberdeen against the Netherlands tonight, would provide only cold comfort in the great scheme of things.
Eight European countries still harbour hopes of reaching the World Cup via play-offs that kick-off tonight. Scotland are not among them. Their dreams have long since been extinguished, as have those of Dick Advocaat’s Netherlands.
Advocaat is hanging on as manager for the time being. But Scotland are already seeking to move on from the Gordon Strachan era. Mackay is framing tonight’s friendly as another new beginning. Pittodrie seems to attract such matches, since it’s here where Strachan’s reign began with a 1-0 win over Estonia on a freezing February night.
In what seem set to be similarly inclement conditions, Mackay is viewing this evening as a chance for players to throw off the shackles of tournament football. The interim manager wants them to step out of the negativity he seems surprised has been directed at his squad choices.
Kris Boyd, in particular, has provided his hot take on Mackay’s bolder decisions, branding the Aberdeen cadre of players called up as a “laughing stock”, included only to lure locals to the game. Boyd was also critical of Ryan Jack, who, he claimed, had had more red cards than good games for Rangers this season.
Mackay claims he had no option but to look at those such as Ryan Christie, Kenny McLean and Jack – players who fit the profile of being in their early-to-mid-20s and who are excelling for their clubs.
“Come Euro 2020 there are extra places available, as we all know, and some of the games are going to be played at Hampden and we obviously want to start qualifying again,” said Mackay. “That being the case, we have got to allow players the chance to bed in to international football if we think they have got a chance.
“Now, the guys who are picked in this squad are all playing at the best level in Scotland, some play in England. They are all there for a reason.
“It is not all doom and gloom,” he added. “It’s why the group was picked – it was picked to show there is young talent in Scotland coming through. We have to give them the best chance.
“Plenty people constantly knock Scottish football into the gutter and eventually there might be a point when it never recovers – we might be half way there already. There is enough people criticising. But I am on the other side of that. I see talent in Scotland.
“Everyone needs a hand, unless you are exceptional. I will certainly be one of those actually helping Scottish players – along with my coaches and their club coaches – to give them a chance to kick on. Because most players need help, most need a hand up, either tactically or emotionally.”
It’s unusual for a new manager to find defending an unbeaten record among his first tasks. Strachan might have gone but his legacy remains in the shape of a run of seven unbeaten games this year.
This sequence might have kicked off in underwhelming fashion in March with a 1-1 draw against Canada. Few could have imagined then that Scotland would play another six competitive matches without losing. But then it’s possible for draws to feel like defeats, as they did against England and Slovenia.
Scotland had to treat the last time they went a full calendar year unbeaten as compensation for failing to reach a World Cup, in 1970. With the globe preparing to be wowed by Brazil in Mexico, Bobby Brown’s side gritted their teeth and drew two and won one of three Home Internationals played in April that year, scoring just once. They also defeated Denmark 1-0 in the opening game of the European Championship qualifiers. Scotland did not reach the next major finals either, Brown resigning in 1971.
Strachan, meanwhile, departed after leading Scotland to the brink of the World Cup play-offs. The aphorism about not trying to fix something that isn’t broken could well apply. Scotland have been left in a state of flux once again, playing a friendly nobody wanted against opposition who are trying even harder to summon enthusiasm.
Mackay was handed a one-game brief as interim manager but could well be handed the reins again in March for a mooted friendly against Morocco. “I haven’t thought about it,” he said, when asked to consider the personal significance of this evening’s game.
“You just slip into the job,” he added. “I will be very proud and humbled to go out there as manager of my country. I take my task of making sure the group is ready for kick-off very seriously.”
Ryan Christie and Kenny McLean will start for Scotland tonight at their Aberdeen club ground. Mackay has been sure to leave an imprint in his first outing as interim manager by handing debuts to Christie and Rangers midfielder Ryan Jack, who starts at right-back.
Scott Brown has been ruled out although Mackay deflected enquiries about the specific nature of his injury towards his club, Celtic. Club teammates Craig Gordon and Kieran Tierney are, however, set to start, the latter at left centre-half.
Mackay confirmed winger Matt Phillips has cemented his place in the side in preference to Jason Cummings.
McLean wins only his second cap and Aberdeen’s Graeme Shinnie is also in the squad.