Wily Gordon Strachan has Scotland’s lions hungry for more success

His subtle but succinct skewering of John Delaney grabbed all the attention on this side of the Irish Sea, but closer to home, it was another of Stewart Regan’s observations that stood out from the rest. 

Wily Gordon Strachan has Scotland’s lions hungry for more success

The Scottish FA chief tends to choose his words, takes care of his offerings and generally eschews urges to engage in any grandstanding.

These are heady days in his adopted homeland, however. It’s not just the changing of the seasons that has brought a surge of energy, a fresh light to Scotland. Depending who you listened to, last month’s British general election saw the nation experience an avalanche, a typhoon or a tsunami. These were of the electoral, rather than meteorological, variety.

It says much then that when Regan was asked to gauge the health of the national football team in Glasgow on Tuesday, he reached for the very figurehead of the country’s political revolution for comparison.

“I think Gordon Strachan has probably done as much as Nicola Sturgeon to rally the nation right now,” said the SFA chief executive. “We’ve had a laugh and a joke about his popularity amongst Scotland fans. But the way Gordon Strachan has got the team playing right now is that they’re full of optimism, they’re full of hope. Everyone wants to be part of this.”

It made for a good headline. It made for a great soundbite. And it made more than a little sense. In taking 56 of the 59 Westminster seats on offer north of Hadrian’s Wall, Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party had gone an astonishingly long way to uniting a country that was split almost perfectly down the middle by last year’s independence referendum. A sense of place and a sense of pride in that place washed over the land as segment after segment of the electoral map turned SNP yellow. “The Scottish lion is roaring,” boomed Sturgeon’s predecessor, Alex Salmond.

The country’s sporting lion may not quite be roaring just yet. But Strachan’s two and a half years of diligent and delicate vocal chord surgery have his football feline finding its voice again.

Friday, November 14 last year was arguably the date both of Scotland’s lions cleared their respective throats. Hours after Sturgeon had been elected as the SNP’s new leader at the party conference in Perth, Strachan’s side put in one of their most impressive all-round performances in defeating Martin O’Neill’s Ireland at Celtic Park.

As the sides renew hostilities in Dublin tonight, there is now a real, firm feeling on the other side of the Irish Sea that the manager is on the verge of something special.

Solid, studious, savvy... Strachan is all of the above, with a double shot of smartarse added for good measure. It’s a mix the manager who has always got juices flowing, stirs to perfection. For the Tartan Army, a beleaguered battalion who haven’t know many modern glories, it’s beginning to taste like more.

It helps that the 58-year-old harks back to a more golden time for both the country and its clubs. After a season when Scotland’s champions managed the quite remarkable feat of being knocked out of Europe three times, the memories of Strachan and Aberdeen mixing things with continental kings are comforting ones.

It’s in the international arena though, where the good times are so dearly missed. Strachan won 50 caps between 1980 and 1992, a 12-year span when Scotland qualified for three World Cups and a European Championships.

At Mexico ‘86, as the attacking midfielder who was flame of hair and pocket of size, he was responsible for one of the better goal celebrations of our time when his attempts to pull off the fashionable hoarding-jump proved futile and he instead perched himself atop the advertising sign. That the goal came against West Germany is but another reminder of the rarefied air Scotland used to operate in. In fact, it was part of a 24-year run when the country qualified for six World Cup finals out of seven.

By the time next summer’s European Championships roll around, Scotland’s last taste of a major tournament will have been a full 18 years ago — also in France. The Tartan Army are no longer hungry. They’re ravenous.

The early signs, though, pointed to the famine continuing. Strachan endured a rocky start, losing to Wales and Serbia. However the navy blue shoots were soon visible for all to see. Given that Ireland’s last competitive victories at home and abroad were secured by goals from Jason McAteer and Mark Lawrenson respectively, there can be considerable envy in Strachan guiding Scotland to home and away victories over Croatia at the tail end of World Cup 2014 qualification.

They were wins that provided real momentum. Fourth seeds in the current campaign, Scotland are joined with Germany, just a point behind leaders Poland and two clear of O’Neill’s Ireland. Strachan is 20 games into his tenure now and boasts a win percentage of 55%. If you take away Alex McLeish’s remarkable, near freakish 12 months in the Hampden dugout, it makes Strachan Scotland’s most successful manager since Tommy Docherty all the way back in 1972, better than Jock Stein, Alex Ferguson or Walter Smith.

A win today against O’Neill’s fitful outfit is a very real prospect. With their remaining matches against Poland and Germany both back at Hampden, so too is qualification. That Strachan has re-lit Scotland’s footballing fires is unquestionable. That he has done so with arguably one of the country’s less gifted generations makes the feat all the more impressive.

The Scotland squads that went to World Cups in the manager’s playing days called upon supreme talents from Liverpool, Leeds and AC Milan (1982), Manchester United, Barcelona and Sampdoria (1986) or Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund (1990).

Of the 26 players Strachan and his trusted lieutenant Mark McGhee brought to Dublin, just seven finished the season in England’s Premier League. Yet unlike his opposing number, Strachan has moulded a clear, cohesive and, when necessary, clever unit.

“I’m looking at our team against Scotland and I’m thinking we have got the better players,” observed Aiden McGeady last week. “But they looked the better team.”

A damning indictment. But an accurate one. A panel that is most glaringly deficient in defence have nonetheless kept 10 clean sheets in Strachan’s tenure, with Norwich City captain Russell Martin proving particularly stoic. A relentlessly hard-working engine room will likely find no room for the rejuvenated Darren Fletcher today, such has been the effectiveness of the unit led by Scott Brown.

When attacking, they’re handsomely supplemented out wide and through the middle by Steven Naismith, Ikechi Anya and Shaun Maloney inter-changing roles. Goals remain an inescapable issue. Maloney is the most prolific scorer in the current panel with a paltry six goals. But one, from the Chicago Fire man, proved enough to kill off Ireland at Parkhead in November.

One could well be enough tonight to have the Tartan Army roaring again. Sturgeon and Strachan...inflamers rather than tamers.

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