It would have taken a herculean effort for Scotland’s players to distance themselves from the celebration which engulfed Hampden Park on Thursday.
According to Gordon Strachan, his squad did precisely that.
The last-minute winner against Slovakia increased Scotland’s haul to 13 points from a possible 15. Context – they had previously claimed four from 12 – further adds to this sense of revival. One more victory, in Slovenia on Sunday, would take Scotland into a World Cup play-off. It was with that pivotal fixture in mind that Strachan’s players retained focus post-Slovakia.
“There’s a satisfaction thing,” Strachan said. “There’s no euphoria. It’s not that. It’s just satisfaction, a quiet satisfaction. Seriously. There is no singing and dancing, high-fives and hand-slapping. It really is just a glow of satisfaction.
“What does that tell me? That they know the game in Slovenia is going to be big. That they need to be ready. Darren Fletcher is in there saying: ‘Right lads, we need to be prepared.’ You can tell by the reaction. That [win] was great but there’s a big one coming.”
It is not typical for Strachan to talk up the magnitude of games, which illustrates how it is unavoidable in this case. More standard from the manager is a refusal to bow to public pressure with regards selection. Calls for him to include Callum McGregor and, to a lesser extent, John McGinn in his team – or even as replacements – were ignored. Strachan deployed and kept faith with Sheffield Wednesday’s Barry Bannan, before pointing to a wider issue with regard to England-based Scots.
“I am quite loyal to players but the loyalty is not blind,” Strachan said. “I understand that every manager wants players from their club to play; I’ve got that. I understand that every supporter wants their boys to play. I’ve got that as well. I’ve not got a problem with that. But what they don’t all do is the research that I do. I go round every game my players play, I see everything.
“It couldn’t have been easy for Barry Bannan either. He must get that media thing where everybody is clamouring for other players when he turns up. But I think that’s always going to happen. You want your local guys to get picked first.
“I think that happens with the Anglos more often. Even back in my day. There is actually more pressure on the Anglos to play better because what happens with an Anglo is that, if he plays badly, he disappears for two months – you don’t see him. A home Scot can play badly, score two goals the next Saturday and everything is good again. A home Scot can score two goals against Hamilton on a Friday night and be a world star again.”
One of many striking aspects of this Scottish resurgence is that a makeshift defence – including two natural left-backs – has kept three clean sheets in succession. “Each of these victories help,” Strachan said of new-found confidence. “And what also helps is that the 14 players played well but the rest of the squad this week have been terrific.
“I had to say to Steven Whittaker: ‘You’re not getting stripped’ and that’s a horrible thing. He took it brilliantly. It never affected him, he came in the dressing room talking to players. Then you’ve got Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong, injured but turning up sitting in front of the guys ready to go. The energy also comes from feeling good about yourself. There was a point when we had to dig deep to get to where we are just now.”
Strachan suggested Liverpool’s Andy Robertson completed 90 minutes on Thursday despite incurring a broken wrist. Fletcher limped off but is expected to retain his midfield berth in Slovenia. Scotland’s opposition on Sunday have not conceded a home goal in this campaign.
“I think football fans now all know how hard it’s going to be,” Strachan said. “They saw us only getting a late winner against them [in Glasgow] and England got a late winner. Everybody knows how hard this section has been.”
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