It’s an­other one of those weeks

Graeme Macpher­son What’s the score?

Sunday Herald - - 19.03.17 SPORT -

IN­TER­NA­TIONAL week ar­rives with the same ap­peal as glanc­ing across at the alarm clock on a Mon­day morn­ing and re­luc­tantly ac­cept­ing there is no choice but to get up. It has be­come some­thing of a strug­gle. There can be few who bound ea­gerly out of their beds at the thought of watch­ing the na­tional team thrash around help­lessly in its cur­rent state. When did fol­low­ing Scot­land be­come such a la­bo­ri­ous, joy­less chore? There will be some fer­vent fa­nat­ics who will in­sist that, even now, noth­ing in life gives them more plea­sure than sit­ting in the soul­less cav­ern that is Ham­p­den Park wit­ness­ing the lat­est bunch of spir­ited tri­ers in dark blue shirts thud a ball from side to side. And many more who will in­sist that their tri-an­nual trips to the high spots and flesh­pots of Europe are noth­ing more than them ex­press­ing their un­stint­ing de­vo­tion to the cause, and cer­tainly not just an ex­cuse to don pe­cu­liar garb and drink their own body­weight in ex­otic lager for three days. Not that any­one is judg­ing, of course. But for the foot­ball purists among the pa­tri­ots – those who care deeply about the state of the na­tional team and its place in the wider scheme of things – the sense of dis­en­chant­ment and en­nui must be al­most over­bear­ing as they con­tem­plate matches against Canada and Slove­nia with all the en­thu­si­asm of an evening spent grout­ing the shower. Four months have now passed since the na­tional team last ap­peared in front of its in­creas­ingly dis­il­lu­sioned public, suc­ces­sive 3-0 de­feats to Slo­vakia and Eng­land all but ren­der­ing our World Cup qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign over be­fore it had prop­erly be­gun. Uefa’s in­sis­tence that opt­ing out at this stage is not an op­tion will see Scot­land line up for a fur­ther six fix­tures in which the word “com­pet­i­tive” can only be used in the loos­est of senses. Bar­ring an un­likely meta­mor­pho­sis into a team of world beat­ers, there is al­most no prospect of Scot­land breath­ing fresh life into this al­ready flat cam­paign. It has been quite some time now since the Tar­tan Army could travel out to a match im­bued with op­ti­mism and bol­stered by a feel­good fac­tor that theirs was a team worth sup­port­ing.

There was fleet­ing hope dur­ing the pre­vi­ous cam­paign be­fore it was so crudely ex­tin­guished in the run-in; two open­ing draws did for them in the last set of World Cup qual­i­fiers; and there was lit­tle glory to be ex­tracted from the fail­ure to reach Euro 2012.

You have to go back to Septem­ber 2009 and the cam­paign to reach the fol­low­ing sum­mer’s World Cup fi­nals in South Africa to find the last time Scot­land reached the end of a qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign with some­thing still to play for. Even then, they couldn’t find the home win over the Nether­lands that would have earned them a play-off place.

A decade of un­re­lent­ing un­der­achieve­ment has now passed since the fa­mous home-and-away vic­to­ries over France that weren’t enough to take the team to Euro 2008. The last man­ager to take Scot­land to a play-offs was, in fact, the much-maligned Berti Vogts back in 2003. When you have not qual­i­fied for a ma­jor tour­na­ment since 1998, then some­times prom­ise and po­ten­tial are enough to sus­tain a na­tion.

Head­ing into the first in­ter­na­tional fix­tures of 2017, how­ever, and it is dif­fi­cult to de­tect any bur­geon­ing sign of op­ti­mism, no hope­ful shoots of re­cov­ery as had been the case in the first half of the pre­vi­ous cam­paign. Per­haps adding to that sense of ap­a­thy among the Scot­land sup­port is the fact the same man­ager is still call­ing the shots.

The loss to Eng­land in Novem­ber felt like a nat­u­ral time to part ways with Gor­don Strachan and thank him for his ef­forts. In­stead, the SFA board elected unan­i­mously to al­low him to con­tinue in the post. Rather than a fresh start, it has in­stead cre­ated an­other po­ten­tially awk­ward sit­u­a­tion should Scot­land not de­feat the Slove­ni­ans next Sun­day. Will Strachan be ex­pected to leave in those cir­cum­stances? And, if so, would it not have been bet­ter giv­ing a new man­age­ment team four months to bed into the job rather than be thrust blink­ing in front of the head­lights for a re­union with Eng­land in June?

In the mean­time, there is lit­tle op­tion but to mud­dle on. There are at least a few new names and re­turn­ing faces to of­fer a fresh per­spec­tive on Wed­nes­day night’s friendly at Easter Road against Canada, and then Sun­day’s qual­i­fier at Ham­p­den. The emer­gence of Stu­art Arm­strong at Celtic of­fers hope that he can do sim­i­lar for Scot­land, while his team-mate Kieran Tier­ney con­tin­ues to make a case to be con­sid­ered the finest player of his gen­er­a­tion. Calls for Ryan Fraser, Matt Phillips and Tom Cair­ney to be given a go have been heard, while goalscor­ing enigma Jor­dan Rhodes is also back.

A brace of wins would go some way to help­ing lift the mood of a na­tion. Good­ness knows it could do with it.

For the purists among the pa­tri­ots, the sense of dis­en­chant­ment must be al­most over­bear­ing

Pho­to­graph: Getty

Gor­don Strachan is not the only one who has had to watch Scot­land through his fin­gers

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