Harry Kane’s late, late intervention was not to prove the final weekend blow landed on Gordon Strachan even if it was the most shuddering one. “I am absolutely shattered,” Strachan said. “That is probably the most emotional I have ever been after a game.”
Slovakia’s Group F victory in Lithuania on Saturday evening means Scotland remain fourth in the section, four points adrift of second and three from third. World Cup qualification remains a long shot, even if the pulsating boost afforded to Scotland by Leigh Griffiths’s outstanding double against England gave Strachan reason to believe.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t,” the manager insisted. “If I didn’t believe it I think it would rub off on the players. The players can sniff that.”
Strachan’s own situation has, of course, been intrinsically linked to struggles which preceded the March win over Slovenia and briefly stirring events of Saturday. It now seems certain the 60-year-old will see out the campaign, which apart from anything else will be commercially and practically useful to the Scottish FA in terms of sourcing a replacement.
“I have got a way of dealing with it,” Strachan said regarding speculation. “What makes me strong is those players and everybody I have met this week. People come up to you and say: ‘Keep it up, keep it going.’ That energises you.
“You all know that I do keep a barrier between myself and the media. It is nothing against you guys. I can get on and do my job, then it doesn’t affect me. If it affected me then it would affect the players. You have seen the performances over the last couple of years. I have got no problem with that. Funnily enough, somebody said: ‘Would you go back to full-time [club] management?’ I said: ‘Yeah, with that group I would.’
“I actually get excited when it’s time to get together with them. I just love working with them. We have faults, we all know there are faults – but that’s not their fault, that’s the Scottish game.”
That widespread chasm between Scottish players and their English counterparts is not lost on any sane observer, albeit Strachan has regularly been guilty of underplaying what talent is actually at his disposal. Teams with less to pull upon have fared better than the Scots under Strachan’s guidance.
A case in point relates to Griffiths, whom Strachan showed a real reluctance to play until recently. The manager will claim it was a simple mistake but pointing towards Christophe Berra as a player at a Hearts team “who finished sixth” in Scotland was disingenuous; they did not, just as the centre-back was virtually an ever‑present player last season for Ipswich Town in the Championship, a division from which Strachan has always drawn heavily. Berra was actually one of Scotland’s best players on Saturday.
“Listen, we have to improve,” Strachan said. “But that’s a different story. We could sit here all night and talk about things that we have to do to make us better as a group. In general, we still have to improve a lot as a whole, Scottish players.
“What you can’t say, though, is can you improve on your work rate. Unless you stand out there in that tunnel with these [English] guys and then get knocked down you don’t know what it’s like. It’s like in rugby when you come up against a pack and that pack keeps knocking you back. It drains you. That’s what happened with these guys. It drains you. But they kept finding an energy from somewhere.”
Scotland would now be helped in part by England maintaining their imperious qualifying form against other teams in the group. “I hope so,” Strachan said. “That’s 35 games unbeaten [in tournament qualifiers] and it’s the closest they’ve been to losing that record.
“We had a moment in the day that a lot of us in football won’t forget. We will remember the noise after the second goal forever. It could have been the best ever. If you can leave memorable moments then you have given something to the game.”
Griffiths was so close to becoming a national hero. His international manager drew comparisons to David Beckham and his memorable free-kick goal for England against Greece in 2001. “Some people can do it after 20 minutes when they’re fresh,” Strachan said. “For Leigh to dig out these two late on was incredible. I actually thought the second one would go in as well, I really did.”
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