In awe from a distance: Strachan hails Cruyff
Scotland manager pays tribute to ‘the first real superhero of football who you could see regularly on TV’
He was an incredible coach. It’s very hard to be one of these top, top players and then go on and become a top, top coach. Not many have done that
AN away win, achieved with an under-strength side, over opponents preparing to play in the Euro 2016 finals after topping their qualifying section was about as satisfying an outing as Gordon Strachan could have hoped for.
Yet, the 1-0 victory Scotland recorded over the Czech Republic in a friendly international in the Stadion Letna in Prague on Thursday evening, while welcomed, was not celebrated joyously by the manager.
The news that Johan Cruyff, the peerless Dutch football master, had passed away after losing his fight against lung cancer earlier in the day was met with genuine sadness by Strachan.
While he never faced Cruyff on the field of play, he had marvelled at the Ajax, Barcelona and Netherlands player’s ability, grace and vision during his heyday and encountered him personally over the years. His death overshadowed the victory over the Czechs.
“It wasn’t a great day,” said Strachan. “He was only 68. It’s nothing. I met him a few times. He was just a smashing fellow. He was the first real superhero of football who you saw regularly.
“We never saw Pele too much or Eusebio because it was just the start of television coming through and showing football more regularly. His movement was like a ballerina, he had the grace and the strength. And his ability was phenomenal.
“The way he played against Argentina in the 1974 World Cup was incredible. You’ve got to remember he played in the days when you got the first kick free. And usually the second and third. You could go through the whole team having kicks at you but he never seemed to complain. He just got on with it.
“He might have looked slender, but he had real core strength. That’s what we miss in Scottish football – players with core strength. I never played against him, thank goodness, but I enjoyed watching him from afar.”
Cruyff, a three-time winner of both the European Cup and the European Footballer of the Year award, is one of a select group of truly great footballers who went on to enjoy successful careers in management after retiring from playing.
He took over at Ajax, where he had spent two spells as a player, in 1985 and set about instigating a system of play which was later credited with enabling the Amsterdam club to win the Champions League in 1995.
He returned to Barcelona as coach in 1988 and proceeded to win the La Liga title four seasons running as well as the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1989 and the European Cup in 1992 during his time in the dugout at the Nou Camp.
Famously, he was also responsible for setting up the fabled La Masia youth academy which has since spawned talents such as Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez. In 2010 all three players were finalists in the Ballon d’Or
“He was an incredible coach,” said Strachan. “It’s very hard to be one of these top, top players and then go on and become a top, top coach. There’s not many who have done that – you can count them on the fingers of one hand.
“It’s hard to keep that drive going when you’ve been a star from the age of 15 and 16 and then gone all the way up until he retired. It’s very hard to keep going. He added his own touch to the total football the Dutch played.
“I saw him play a couple of times for Ajax, more so the second time when he went back. I met him on the golf course a couple of times. I met with him Bobby Charlton – spot the odd man out there! He was alright at golf as well.”
Scotland’s display against the Czech Republic was, while good enough to secure an away victory over decent opponents, hardly reminiscent of anything which the teams Cruyff played for would have produced. The national team scored a breakaway goal through Ikechi Anya early on in the match and then defended frantically for extended periods. Allan McGregor in goals enjoyed an outstanding evening to ultimately ensure the narrowest of victories.
However, Strachan, who is already looking towards the opening World Cup qualifier against Malta in Valletta in September, believes the exercise was a successful one.
He selected two squads of 18 players for the double-header against the Czechs and Denmark at Hampden on Tuesday evening. Going into the games without a full complement of his best players could easily have backfired disastrously. Instead, it has increased the options available to him. Paul Caddis of Birmingham City, Kenny McLean of Aberdeen and Tony Watt of Blackburn Rovers all made their Scotland debuts. Elsewhere, Ross McCormack of Fulham shone and Barry Bannan of Sheffield Wednesday and Matt Phillips of Queens Park Rangers performed well after coming on in the second half.
“If we can come out of these two games with a lot more choices than we had going into the games then it’s been a success,” said Strachan. “As far as Thursday night went, you could say that’s happened already. That’s the gamble we took.
“It could have been a case that they could have trained too hard. So it was four days max. It was a gamble, like I say, but it was a way to look at more players. It’s on to the next game now.”
Caddis, who was called up as a replacement for Steven Whittaker on Sunday evening, will remain with the national squad for the Denmark game along with Anya, Gordon Greer and Charlie Mulgrew.
SOLEMN MOMENT: Scotland line up for a minute’s silence before Thursday’s game to pay respect to Johan Cruyff, above