International football, aside from the tournament finals themselves, is often seen as the sickly, degenerate sibling of the club game. It’s viewed as an unwelcome distraction from the day to day business of supporting your club. A viewpoint exacerbated for Celtic fans when the club are as rampant as they currently are and free flowing football has been seen in abundance. A break in rhythm is rather annoying.
However, heading into this bout of international fixtures I was a little more upbeat; a home game against Lithuania and an away tie to a disheveled Slovakia looked like two games that were eminently winnable. Obstacles that Strachan and his men could overcome and continue the march to compete in Scotland’s first competition for twenty years.
The World Cup is the pinnacle of football, something that captivates the attention of everyone across the globe, even folk who usual hold the sport at a repulsive distance. The dream where we can watch Scotland compete on the biggest stage is one that keeps the fans in perpetual hope, despite a mountain of evidence pointing to the contrary.
Now, after just three group games that flicker of hope has all but been extinguished. The draw at home to Lithuania sapped some of the remaining good will that Strachan clung to after seemingly improving the players at his disposal – even if the European Championships proved to be beyond the side. the dismantling in Bratislava on Tuesday has left the ginger gaffer in a precarious position. The continuously moribund, yet consistently honest, Chris Sutton said that, “He has been rude, he’s been cantankerous and I just feel he doesn’t want to be there anymore and he is showing that in every interview”.
It is a view that is becoming increasingly popular. Strachan’s biggest barrier to success has always been himself. His attitude to people has always left lookers-on with a sullied view of the man. The abrasive, argumentative and at times petty nature has time and time again held the man back professionally. Even at Celtic, where the man enjoyed huge success even eclipsing Martin O’Neill in some aspects, he is rather divisive. A legacy that should be beyond reproach is not remembered in the unanimous glow that you would assume.
The feeling that the campaign is over before it has even begun is hard to escape but it is important to bear in mind that just four points separate England in first place and Slovakia in fifth. In a group as combustible and unpredictable as this, gaining the play-off spot does not belong in some fantasy realm. This group will turn into a war of attrition where the ability to knuckle-down and grind out results will be far more important than tactical ingenuity or sarcastic point-scoring in press conferences.
The Rangers’ manager Mark Warburton recently said, “His credentials are there for all to see, so it’s not about changing managers”. Strachan’s turmoil has, for the time being, shifted some of the attention surrounding him and his managerial capacity, and as such his words should be taken with a quarry load of salt. At any rate I could not disagree more. Changing managers now could infuse the whole nation with a renewed sense of optimism, if they appoint the correct coach.
In my opinion, the man they should target is the experienced Swede Lars Lagerbäck.
The former Iceland manager has cultivated a reputation as the Patron Saint of the downtrodden, a beacon of hope for the “little guy”. The Summer provided the ideal example of what he brings to a set up; tactical discipline, tireless work rate, an unshakable aura of belief and most importantly a great level of camaraderie. His sides have consistently punched above their weight. From 2002 through to 2008 his Sweden sides made it to four consecutive tournaments – navigating their way to the knock-out phase on three occasions.
With Iceland he was very unlucky to come up against a reinvigorated Croatia side in a tense play-off defeat in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup. Where a malaise could set in after such a harrowing loss, Lagerbäck instead inspired his young charges and led them through to a now legendary Euro 2016 campaign. Topping a group qualifying containing Turkey, Czech Republic and Holland was impressive and emerging from a finals group containing Portugal was even more so. However, it was their conduct in the elimination rounds that will truly go down in history. The 2-1 win against England (who had already won the game before a ball was even kicked judging by the TV studio guests pre-game analysis) will forever be etched into the minds of football fans everywhere.
Under his tutelage there is every possibility that Scotland can turn around this fledgling qualification process. The well-worn lyric that many fans in Scotland sing, “we’re shit and we know we are…” has become more and more popular in recent years, but with Lars Lagerbäck stoically stood in the Hampden dugout there is the real opportunity to mute that particular tune. It is time to abandon the visibly diminished Strachan and hire the man who can reverse the nation’s fortunes.
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