GORDON STRACHAN came in for a right old mauling from the media and supporters alike after Scotland’s painful and hugely costly defeat to England in a Russia 2018 qualifier back in November.
It required a public vote of confidence from the SFA board in the aftermath of the 3-0 loss at Wembley to silence, for the time being at least, the calls for him to be sacked and replaced as national team manager.
It must have been, even for an individual as experienced and
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single-minded as Strachan, a difficult experience after a result which left the country languishing in second bottom spot in Group F below the likes of Slovenia, Slovakia and Lithuania.
Yet, the 60-year-old will oversee training on the outdoor pitch at Oriam, the new national performance centre outside Edinburgh, today with all the same enthusiasm and optimism as he did when he first took charge over four years ago.
The displays of both Tom Cairney and Ryan Fraser at Fulham and Bournemouth respectively in recent months have, he revealed as he announced his latest squad last week, raised his spirits. He is looking forward to working with two midfielders who could, if they continue to progress, enjoy decent international careers.
Yet, it will have been, you strongly suspect, the return to both fitness and form of Charlie Mulgrew ahead of the friendly with Canada at Easter Road on Wednesday evening and the
World Cup qualifier with Slovenia at Hampden on Sunday night which will have pleased him most.
Indeed, the fact that Mulgrew,
a player who has been blighted by injuries in the last two seasons, has been featuring regularly at centre half for Blackburn Rovers in the Sky Bet Championship will have had him doing cartwheels.
Strachan had to put his faith in Christophe Berra and Grant Hanley in the meeting with Gareth Southgate’s charges at the end of last year.
Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge experienced little difficulty overcoming them.
Mulgrew may not, by his own admission, exactly be Franco Baresi, but his availability once again is certainly significant. He should, if fit, make the Scotland defence far more robust in a meeting with Slovenia which his manager has conceded is must-win.
The last competitive match he featured in was the Euro 2016 qualifier against Germany at Hampden in the September of 2015. He has been missed since.
The paucity of options available to Strachan at centre half complicates his job no end. But unless he finds a solution and oversees a victory this weekend he will face increased pressure which he may not, on this occasion, be able to survive.
AND ANOTHER THING
Jim Stewart departed Rangers this week in much the same manner in which he has gone about his work at Ibrox during the past 10 years; with the minimum of fuss.
Yet, the contribution of the former Kilmarnock, Middlesbrough, Rangers and Scotland goalkeeper, whose position in the back room team has been taken by Pedro Caixinha’s long-term associate Jose Belman, shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated.
Since being brought in by Walter Smith back in 2007, Stewart has been responsible for ensuring the Glasgow club’s last line of defence has been consistently dependable and frequently inspired. Belman will do very well to enjoy the success of his predecessor.
ONE LAST THING
Amid the furore that erupted after Celtic had a penalty claim waved away by Bobby Madden in the final minute of the Old Firm game against Rangers at Parkhead last Sunday, one thing
The scoring chance which fell to Leigh Griffiths in the Rangers box and which was denied – either legally or illegally – by Clint Hill came about as a result of a clearance out of his own area by goalkeeper Craig Gordon.
Gordon, who should get the nod once again to start in goals for Scotland in the Russia 2018 qualifier against Slovenia, has improved his distribution considerably this season.
Brendan Rodgers has demanded that the former Hearts and Sunderland man supply his team mates with the ball instead of just shelling it aimlessly upfield to safety and the 34-year-old
But his howitzer eight days ago nearly clinched victory for his side – in much the same way that a long ball from Jozo Simunovic deep in the Celtic half that led to Moussa Dembele’s winner in the Betfred Cup semi-final against Rangers back in October.
At times, it would seem that going direct still has its place in the modern game.