Scotland have yet again failed to qualify for a major tournament, a tenth consecutive failure.
A whole generation of people have now never seen the Tartan Army have the opportunity to test themselves on a European or World wide stage. By the time the next tournament rolls around it will have been 22 years since a Scottish side competed at that level.
The most frustrating thing for fans this time around is that they almost made it. When Leigh Griffiths powered home a classy finish against Slovenia on Sunday, a nation believed that they could progress into the play-off round of qualifying. However, the same old failings came to the fore – a slow midfield, a lack of ambition on the flanks and poor defending. It was less glorious failure and more expected outcome.
The future of Gordon Strachan is now in doubt. The SFA are set to meet on Thursday to discuss his future, something that was to happen regardless of progression or not. With players backing him and the fact his Scotland team are in fact undefeated in 2017, there’s every chance he could continue as Scotland boss.
There’s a strong argument though that his time leading the nation should now come to an end. A lack of flexibility, an overrating of England-based players and an unwillingness to give recognition to domestic talent coming through North of the border has resulted in bizarre selection choices, frustrating tactics, plenty of regrets and ultimately failure. It has been an unforgivable oversight and if he is to continue as Scotland boss, it’s something that needs to change.
Four games into the most recent World Cup qualifying campaign, disaster was already looming after a series of dreadful results culminating in a passionless 3-0 defeat to England, but the manager re-assessed his squad and it seemed as if he had learned from his mistakes.
At home to Slovenia, Malta and away to Lithuania he had packed his team with a Celtic core, giving regular starts to the likes of Stuart Armstrong, Leigh Griffiths and Kieran Tierney alongside established stars like Scott Brown, James Forrest and Craig Gordon. The upturn in results from that point has been undeniable, with the national team directly benefiting from the winning mentality that Brendan Rodgers has brought to Glasgow.
As noted, with this new fresh look to the team, Scotland have gone the entirety of 2017 undefeated so far, going from the brink of being knocked out early doors to pushing for a play-off place on the last matchday.
However, in the last two qualifiers, when the pressure was again on, the Scotland manager lost sight of what had given his team that freshness and ability to compete. Injuries to Stuart Armstrong and Scott Brown were unfortunate, but he replaced these players with the likes of James McArthur, Darren Fletcher and Barry Bannan, players who play at a good level but are either past their best or not reaching the form of others.
The weekend before Scotland played, the midfield duo of John McGinn and Callum McGregor wowed a sold-out 60,000 crowd at Celtic Park in the Scottish Premiership with two excellent midfield displays for Hibernian and Celtic, both scoring doubles and demonstrating the kind of vibrant ambition, running and finishing ability that would have re-invigorated the Scottish midfield. While they were both in the squad, they did not see a single minute of action against Slovakia or Slovenia.
In the final match, with the chips down and goals needed, Strachan opted to bring on Ikechi Anya, a player who has just 19 minutes of league football under his belt for Derby County this season. Instead could have turned to James Forrest, a player who has already scored seven goals for Celtic this season, shown excellent form and even contributed well on their way to the UEFA Champions League group stages. Would have it changed the course of history? We’ll never know, but it typified the Scotland manager’s mentality when it comes to selection.
The frustration here is not these decisions in isolation but the fact that mistakes and sins of previous years and previous qualifying campaigns are being repeated.
It’s Callum McGregor today but before it was Leigh Griffiths, who went over three years between competitive starts for his country despite scoring 40 goals in a single season for Celtic in the middle of that period, with Strachan instead relying on the likes of Steven Fletcher and Chris Martin. The manager may cite ‘genetics’, but it’s a flimsy excuse. Since his introduction as a regular, the Celtic forward has scored four goals and created three assists in his last five matches, evidence that when faith is shown to the right players, it will be rewarded.
The truth is while Strachan has many failings as a Scotland boss, he has positives too, and it’d be hard to say goodbye to him when the alternative options seem so flimsy. Unless the SFA are to take a bold new stop and appoint from continental Europe or further afield, which has a certain appeal, Strachan may be the best man to lead the team forward again.
If he’s to do that though, it must be made clear that he cannot show the same stubbornness to rely upon faltering stars or players not getting matches, simply because they play outside of Scotland. It’s a pattern that cannot be repeated if the country is to be successful, he must have the vision to spot in-form players playing with passion, a strong mentality and excellent technical ability.
Whether he can do that remains to be seen, but whether he stays or goes, a change must come.