BRUSSELS, October 2012. Scotland are limping to a 2-0 defeat in Belgium in the final game of the despairing Craig Levein reign when the Tartan Army unfurl a banner entitled “Strachan: Save Our Scotland!”
They got their wish in January 2013 when the SFA appointed the former Celtic, Coventry, Southampton and Middlesbrough Manager as Levein’s successor, entrusted with the task of restoring faith in the National side and guiding us back to a major tournament for the first time since 1998. He was a popular choice, not just with the fans but the players and, although he often infuriated them, the media in recognition of a decent managerial CV, plus the fact he was a popular player throughout his long career in the game.
Five years on from that SOS call, Strachan left his dream job by mutual consent, having failed to qualify for the two major tournaments realistically on offer during his tenure.
There was mixed feeling towards the news, with some judging him on the fact that he extended our wait for a World Cup or European Championship appearance into a third decade, whilst others wanted him to remain in the hot seat given an upturn in results over the last six matches. It has been a difficult one to call for fans, pundits, columnists and bloggers to make as there was a genuine case for either scenario.
Personally, I think the right call was made and I take no satisfaction from that whatsoever! Like most, I was delighted when Gordon Strachan got the job. Aside from the fact he is a legend as a player at my club Aberdeen, and the fact he is in the SFA Hall of Fame from his achievements in the dark blue, this was a manager who, unlike his predecessor, had a decent managerial CV.
Keeping Coventry up as long as he did was an achievement in itself, you only have to look at where they are now to say that they’ve not prospered since sacking him after their top flight relegation in 2001. He took Southampton to an FA Cup Final and won three titles with Celtic plus taking them to the last sixteen of the Champions League in successive seasons. Only Middlesbrough blotted his copybook and he had the guts to walk away and waive his rights to compensation in recognition of his failure.
In the beginning of his Scotland tenure, he inherited a team who were all but out of the 2014 World Cup Qualifying race with a terrible return of two points from four games, those two draws coming at home. His first two competitive games saw defeats to Wales and Serbia in March 2013, which confirmed, with four games still to play, that Scotland would miss out on the finals in Brazil.
Progress started with a solid end to that campaign, winning three of the last four matches, and momentum carried into the Euro 2016 Qualifying campaign, winning three and drawing one of the first five matches, sitting just one point behind Poland and World Champions Germany.
Momentum halted with an ultra-defensive performance in Ireland, followed by an abysmal performance and result in Georgia that started a dreadful run of just two wins, coming away to Gibraltar and Malta, from nine competitive matches between June 2015 and November 2016. That run cost us a place at Euro 2016, finishing fourth in the group, and got our World Cup Qualifying campaign off to a dreadful start.
During this time, Strachan’s stubbornness and loyalty to players not getting game time or low in confidence was alarming. For example, 40 goal Leigh Griffiths was often left out for Steven Fletcher, a substitute at the time for Sunderland before being released, or Chris Martin, who had went through a period of not scoring in twenty matches.
His persistence in a centre back pairing of the out of form Russell Martin and Grant Hanley, the latter not getting games for his club, was baffling. Whilst it is acknowledged that we don’t have an abundance of good Centre backs chapping at the door, sticking by a fragile partnership lacking confidence at club level was a terrible decision that often cost us stupid goals.
It is those reasons why it is time for a change. The Scotland squad needs tweaking, fresh blood to be brought through to add to the starting eleven who helped the side turn results around this calendar year. Players like Darren Fletcher, Charlie Mulgrew, Steven Fletcher, Ikechi Anya, Martin and Hanley, need to be moved on either by the fact their best days are behind them or not playing for their clubs. Gordon Strachan is unlikely to do oversee a transition due to his stubbornness, a fresh approach would be more likely to implement those changes.
That’s not to say the case for Strachan to stay wasn’t a strong one. The fact the team did take 14 points from the last 18 was impressive, albeit not enough to secure a playoff place, and Strachan did recognise that the team needed changed and brought in the likes of Stuart Armstrong, Kieran Tierney, James Forrest, Matt Phillips, Griffiths and returning captain Scott Brown. These were players who were on form and playing regularly and it’s no coincidence that results improved because we played guys that were on form at club level, especially the Celtic contingent.
Whilst evidence did point that this was a team on the up, ultimately Strachan’s remit was to qualify and, as he admitted himself, that failure to get into a playoff place at least was a major disappointment. It is rare that an international manager gets more than two campaigns and those who do, for example Chris Coleman, Michael O’Neill and, our last successful manager, Craig Brown, are ones who have managed to take their nation to at least one major tournament. Strachan didn’t do that, therefore the SFA and Strachan himself were right to end their near-five year tenure.
So Gordon Strachan goes and so begs the question – who should be the next Scotland manager?
My cynical view is that the SFA will go for a manager who is a) Scottish and b) cheap, i.e. out of work or cost little compensation. David Moyes, Paul Lambert and Alex McLeish, who managed us a decade ago, all fit the bill and would be decent rather than spectacular given their mixed CV’s.
A non-Scot should not be overlooked. We, the fans and media, need to get over the Berti Vogts era as a guide to judge as proof that all non-Scots would be good enough to take the Scotland job. The SFA famously ignored Lars Lagerback in 2009 in favour of Craig Levein. The Swede, who had done a good job with his homeland for eight years, was then approached by Iceland and the rest is history.
My choice would be to approach Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill. He has a group of players that are, arguably, inferior in quality and lacks the depth of ourselves but has been able to get the Northern Irish to the last sixteen of Euro 2016 and are in next months playoffs for the World Cup, taking them from 123rd in the World Rankings to 20th in his six year reign in the process.
Given that a fair chunk of the Northern Ireland squad come from League One in England and the Scottish Premiership, O’Neill has proven that you can build a successful international team on limited resources and that players from that level are capable of the step up, something Strachan was guilty of by his point-blank refusal to look at certain players in Scotland’s top flight. The fact O’Neill lives in Edinburgh is also appealing.
The only stipulation is, if Northern Ireland win their playoff and qualify for the finals in Russia, we would need to wait until the summer before he takes charge, giving him little time to get a team together for the UEFA Nations League and Euro 2020 Qualifying campaign starting in September next year. However, if Northern Ireland miss out, the SFA should make their move.
Whoever comes in is inheriting a squad that has more potential than people realise, and have been backed up by recent results. It’s a squad that needs tweaking rather than an overhaul and a fresh voice is exactly what the National team needs.
There is no doubt that Scotland are in a better position from when Gordon Strachan took the job, where we were on the brink of falling into Pot Five before his intervention. However, that failure to get us into a playoff meant that a change was needed and the SFA, to their credit, have been quick to recognise that.
Time will tell if it was the right decision or not. That wholly depends on who his successor is.