The Sunday Post (Dundee)
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW We have to believe this is our time to book a Finals berth
THE announcement of Gordon Strachan’s squad for the opening 2018 World Cup qualifier against Malta tomorrow will rekindle memories for Andy Webster.
Four years ago the St Mirren stopper was part of the Scotland side that kicked off the 2014 campaign with a 0-0 draw against Serbia.
And while things were to go badly awry, he still clearly remembers the feeling of optimism going into the campaign everyone hoped would be the one in which the country at last ended the long wait to reach a major Finals.
“There is always a feeling of freshness at the start of any competition, and the last one was no different,” he said.
“We felt we had the ability, the experience and certainly the desire to get us through. So we were optimistic about our chances.
“Of course, things didn’t go at all as we hoped, with the draws at home to Serbia, and then to Macedonia three days later. That was a big disappointment.
“When we lost to Wales in Cardiff a month after that, we were in real trouble. A month later, Craig Levein left his job as national boss, to be replaced by Gordon Strachan in mid-campaign.
“As you might expect, it was a similar story too for a lot of the players, myself among them, who ended up out of the picture.
“My own situation was a wee bit different as I had just won the 2012 Scottish Cup with Hearts when Craig first gave me my recall. But I moved down to England’s League One to play for Coventry City under Steven Pressley at the end of my contract the following year.”
Yet while the defender has won the last of his 28 Scotland caps, his passion for his country has never dimmed.
As the names of the group are announced, he will again feel the familiar mix of excitement and mild trepidation.
“I think we are all – players, fans, coaches and media – the same in that we crave to see Scotland play at a World Cup or a Euros again.
“I drove my kids to the Poland game (at the end of the failed Euro 2016 campaign) and we were all crushed at the end as we realised we were going to miss out again.
“It has been far too long and we are now in a situation where we have a generation of supporters who, because they have started watching since 1998, don’t know what a fantastic experience it can be.
“They will have been watching the likes of Wales, Northern Ireland and Iceland punch above their weight in France during the summer and thinking: ‘Why is that never us?’”
The answer, Webster believes, comes down to a combination of belief and forward momentum.
“I am convinced the squad we have is good enough,” he said.
“Scott Brown may have retired at international level now. But if you look around the group, we have loads of experience with the likes of James Morrison, James McArthur and Darren Fletcher. All obvious fits in the more defensive-midfield roles.
“In attacking areas of midfield, we are spoiled for choice. The centre of defence has been an issue in the past. But Grant Hanley and Russell Martin know each other’s game well now and, of course, behind them we have loads of talent, with goalkeepers Allan McGregor, David Marshall and Craig Gordon all top class.
“Up front, too, the manager has plenty of options with Leigh Griffiths, Steven Fletcher and Ross McCormack – all high-quality strikers.
“So I don’t think we lack the players. For me what we need is just to get over the line – however we do it – that one time and that will be us away again.
“You watched Wales and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in action in the Euros.
“You could see the players grow in confidence as they realised they weren’t out of place, and their performances improved as a result.
“That is what we need. We can definitely compete at the level, we just need to somehow break the mould to prove it.”