ON last weeks Scottish Football Forums podcast, I predicted that one of the likely scenarios from Scotland’s remaining two World Cup Qualifying matches was that we’d beat Slovakia to give ourselves a chance of the playoffs – then blow it by failing to beat Slovenia.
Unfortunately, my prediction was spot on!
This isn’t something I take any satisfaction from, I’d have loved nothing more than being proven wrong and that Scotland picked up the six points they needed from that double header to keep our World Cup hopes alive, instead of saying “I told you so”.
You could say that I was being pessimistic, but then it’s something that I simply cannot help given the fortunes of the National team over the years. Time and time again, they build up our hopes that we can achieve something, then somehow manage to screw it up.
When your country hasn’t qualified for a major tournament for two decades, which will be the statistic when the finals get underway in Russia next year, you can’t help but predict that Scotland will falter at the last qualification hurdle.
To be fair, Scotland did very well to get in this position in the first place after an appalling return of four points from the opening four matches. Three wins and a draw from the next four gave us hope, another two wins would complete a remarkable turnaround for Gordon Strachan’s men.
Slovakia came to Hampden in pole position for that playoff spot, knowing that a point would all but assure them of remaining second with the luxury of a home match against Malta to finish the campaign. Scotland, simply, had to win!
It looked as though we were in for another one of those hard luck stories that seems to follow the National team like a bad smell. Despite being up against ten men, we were up against a goalkeeper having the game of his life and twice rattling the woodwork. Then with just a minute left, we got that lucky break courtesy of an own goal from Martin Skrtel that almost lifted the roof off Hampden. Scotland held onto claim three vital points that saw them leapfrog the Slovaks and put their World Cup fate firmly into their own hands.
The post-match atmosphere was the best I’d witnessed at Hampden for a Scotland game since Ukraine in 2007. Everyone was buzzing, there was a confidence in the air after that game that hadn’t been there for a long time, fans had a belief that we could now complete the turnaround in three days time. The fact the team played well and didn’t give up, despite the chances that came and went throughout the match, added to the feel-good factor after the game that this was a Scotland side that could go to Slovenia and win.
It was never going to be easy in Ljubljana last night. Although they were all but out (they needed victory and the unlikely event of Malta winning in Slovakia to overhaul both sides into second place), Slovenia hadn’t lost a goal in their previous four home qualifiers and only group winners England left with a point. However, Scotland had won their last World Cup qualifier there, courtesy of a 3-0 win in 2005, and their run of four wins and a draw that took them Fifth to second in the group gave the travelling contingent of fans belief that we could get the three points required to seal that playoff place.
Forty-five minutes in, it was looking good. Leigh Griffiths neatly taken goal gave the Scots a half time lead and we were defending reasonably well. All we had to do was maintain that and we would be in the Playoffs.
However, a very poor second half saw Slovenia turn the game in their favour thanks to a double from Roman Bezjak as the hosts dominated the game to take the lead. Robert Snodgrass’s late strike gave us hope but time ran out on Scotland’s World Cup Qualifying campaign, with Slovakia’s expected 3-0 win over Malta seeing them leapfrog us into second place.
The latest failure means that it’s now ten major tournaments in which Scotland have failed to qualify, and another post-mortem begins as to why we failed again.
Arguably, last night was not where the campaign was lost – it was a year ago to the day when we failed to beat Lithuania at home. That night, the team played so abysmally that we were lucky to get away with a 1-1 draw against a side who only picked up six points (four of them against Malta) in the whole campaign. The affects of that performance carried on into the trip to Slovakia, where we were pummelled 3-0, and another 3-0 reversal at Wembley meant we were up against it after four matches.
Others will, understandably, point to the England game at Hampden in our failure to see out the game and lost a shocking late goal. Whilst that is a valid point, and personally it was one of the most sickening moments as a Scotland fan seeing us throw away victory against our bitter rivals, the draw was a bonus point, whereas Lithuania was one where three points were essential. We paid for going into that game with the attitude of “we don’t need to win” and by picking players like Martin, Hanley, Ritchie and Martin who, at the time, were either not playing regularly or not playing well for their clubs.
The fact that Strachan then changed the side and went with inform players, predominantly from a Celtic side who’ve been unbeaten domestically under Brendan Rodgers, was a credit to him for recognising that he had made mistakes. Unfortunately, it’s come just too late to save their campaign and the loss of Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong, who were both injured, was significant in the Slovenia match.
As is the case when a campaign ends, the big question turns to the managers future. Will Gordon Strachan remain as Scotland manager for the Euro 2020 campaign?
It’s unusual for a manager to remain for a third campaign, no Scotland manager has had that luxury since Craig Brown, who got two more campaigns after France ’98. For the SFA, they have got to decide whether they have seen enough progress in the past four years to allow Strachan to carry on.
Evidence in this calendar year suggest that Strachan has earned a new deal thanks to the upturn in performances and results that gave us hope that we could end that 20 year hoodoo. However, the overall results over both campaigns haven’t been good enough and Strachan’s stubbornness in sticking by the same players, even when they weren’t in the matchday squads of their respective clubs, was a big contribution to our downfall in both campaigns.
When you analyse Scotland’s competitive record under Strachan, his results have actually been quite decent either side of the period June 2015 to November 2016, with that record being ten wins, three draws and four defeats. However, that 18 month period of just two wins from nine games, away wins in Gibraltar and Malta, has cost Scotland qualification in two campaigns, and that is where Strachan is ultimately judged.
It looks as though Strachan will decide whether or not he remains in the job, rather than the SFA making that big call. The SFA allowed him to decide his future after the England game at Wembley eleven months ago when results and performances were dreadful, so they are unlikely to wield the axe on the back of a six game unbeaten run. Only Gordon Strachan can say whether or not he has taken the team as far as he can.
Should he walk, the next question is who next for the hot seat?
Davie Moyes will be the obvious favourite. Scottish, out of work and declaring an ambition to manage his country at some stage in his career, he fits the SFA criteria without doubt. However, his record since leaving Everton for Manchester United in 2013 is questionable, with failed stints at Real Sociedad and Sunderland following his dismal tenure at Old Trafford.
Paul Lambert also ticks the “Scottish and free” box that appeals to the SFA, and did build a decent CV with his work at Norwich in particular. Spells at Aston Villa, Blackburn and Wolves followed that have blotted his copybook somewhat, so whether he is qualified to lead the National side leaves a lot to be desired.
Derek McInnes is another who’s name will likely come up if Strachan chooses to walk. There is no doubt that he’s done a great job in establishing Aberdeen as Scotland’s second best side and ending their 19 year trophy hoodoo in 2014. However, the fact he turned down Sunderland shows that he still has work to do at Pittodrie and it’s questionable if the Scotland job would be enough to tempt him away from the North East.
Away from the homegrown candidates, Michael O’Neill’s work at Northern Ireland hasn’t gone unnoticed. He’s transformed a group of players largely from League One and the Scottish Premiership into a top 20 ranked side, having taken them to their first major finals since 1986 in last summers Euros and are guaranteed a playoff for the World Cup. Based in Edinburgh, he could be tempted but is more likely to seek a route back into club management.
There is little point discussing the foreign route as the SFA seem to have made it clear that it will be a disaster, purely based on Berti Vogts’ reign 13 years ago. That attitude cost us Lars Lagerback, who wanted the job in 2009 post-George Burley, only to be snubbed for Craig Levein. Iceland owe us a debt of gratitude for that short-sighted approach as they benefitted from his excellent international management credentials, where he left them after guiding them to the last eight of Euro 2016. No foreign candidate stands out but that’s not to say we can’t go down this route instead of being blinded by Berti. Conveniently, people do also forget that, for all his faults, he remains the last manager to take Scotland into a playoff.
So the attention turns to Euro 2020 and the preparation begins now in our eleventh attempt to qualify for a first major finals since France ’98.
Evidence of the last six games prove that we do have players capable of churning out good results on a regular basis, something that should bode well going into the next campaign. With Hampden one of 13 stadiums being used for the Finals, it would be inconceivable if Scotland were to miss out on a tournament they are co-hosting, so the extra motivation is there for the Scots to push on and put the disappointment of World Cup 2018 behind them.
Whether or not Gordon Strachan is there to lead us or not is a story for another day.