There was a best-of-an-average -lot feel to the Scotland squads selected by Gordon Strachan last week. Disturbingly, the ambivalence over the quality of the personnel selected for the friendly double-header away to Czech Republic on 24 March and at home to Denmark five days later seemed to extend to the national coach himself.
Strachan exhibited brutal candour in assessing what Scotland has, or rather has not, as the lead-in begins to the World Cup qualifying campaign for a tournament that will take place 20 years after the country last contested a major finals.
The paucity of central defensive options is a problem not in Strachan’s gift to solve. It was notable that, while cases were made for players in every other position who did not feature in the two players lists for the forthcoming fixtures, there was no clamour that identified a shamefully overlooked Scottish central defender. Equally, there was no questioning of the inclusion of Leeds United centre-back Liam Cooper, a la the decision to pick striker Tony Watt.
The selection of Gordon Greer, 35 years old and without an appearance for Brighton in two months, might have raised some eyebrows but Strachan offered up an unabashed riposte.
“I think we’re the second oldest and the second smallest after Spain. And people say ‘well, Spain can do it’ – do us a favour,” Strachan said. “Gordon Greer is still there at 35 because there’s nobody to put him under pressure. There’s no right centre back who can put him under pressure. He can still pass the ball, he can still read the game. If we could get someone who could run quicker than Gordon and jump higher he would be in. But we’ve not got that. It’s quite simple: be better and you’ll get in.”
Strachan was able to throw out some alarming statistics about why Scotland’s footballing fortunes seem in terminal decline. “Since 1957 the male birth rate has gone down 45 per cent. The pool of players has gone right down,” he said.
Other nations have been bolstered by large immigrant populations. Scotland doesn’t have the variety of gene pools that that has underpinned the recent success of mainland European countries.
“Belgium have a lot of first or second generation Africans to choose from. If you look at France when I played against them in the 80s, they had two in [Marius] Tresor and [Jean] Tigana. But the team who won the World Cup in 1998 was completely different due to the first and second generation Africans in the side. We don’t have that pool, it’s just us. We have the same pool – or even less, in fact – than we had 200 years ago. There’s been an improvement in a lot of international teams due to first and second generation Africans.”
There isn’t any individual Scotland player capable of making a huge difference – and there are no early teen “superstars” on the horizon. The last time there was excitable chatter over an up-and-coming Scots player was when Darren Fletcher was coming through the ranks at Manchester United. Now revitalised at West Bromich Albion after courageously overcoming a career-threatening illness, the 32-year-old is acknowledged by Strachan. Yet he offers “no guarantees” when it comes to giving him game time. Fletcher became a peripheral figure in the failed Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
“He’s one of the four or five who are playing regularly in a top league for their club,” Strachan said. “In fact, he’s probably playing at the highest level of anyone in the squad. And West Brom aren’t a team who are challenging for Europe.”
Challenging times against European opponents seem guaranteed even before the World Cup qualifiers that will start in September and pit Strachan’s side against England, Slovakia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Malta.
The friendlies to come against Euro 2016 finalists Italy and France in May and June could offer a sobering week. Again, Strachan doesn’t shy from that fact. “It seemed a good idea at the time to play Italy and France next,” he said.“The teams we’ve played against recently have great players: Serbia, Poland, Croatia, Germany, England. We have to find out if our boys can play at that level and feel comfortable with it. So you might as well face decent opposition. We might need to take a few slaps to find out but it’s worth it. When I was at Aberdeen, before we started beating Hamburg and Bayern Munich, we got beat off Eintracht Frankfurt and the like. We had to take a few hits to find out what it’s all about. We won’t experiment with the system in these games but we’ll tweak it.”