GORDON Strachan left Southampton in 2004, months before the arrival of a gawky teen- ager from Whit-church, Cardiff, whom he would soon regard as one of the finest players on the planet.
The worlds of Gareth Bale and the new Scotland manager will collide at Hampden in six weeks and such is the imminent threat posed by the Tottenham playmaker, who scored twice in their 2-1 win over Newcastle yesterday, that discussions have already been held in the Scotland camp about devising a system to stop him. However, the conclusion reached was a troubling one: the only surefire way to prevent him wreaking havoc is to stop him getting the ball in the first place.
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"We have already spent a couple of days thinking about the March games, talking about systems that we are going to play against," said Strachan, as he raked over the 1-0 victory against Estonia at Pittodrie on Wednesday. "But Gareth Bale is Gareth Bale. You are talking about one of the top players in the world just now. I have been fortunate to watch him in the last two years and sometimes he is unstoppable. He is that good. Whether it is a terrific run, or a shot, a goal or something special, I have never been at a game where he has not done anything and I have seen him live 12 or 13 times in the last year. He is just a great, great player. But like anybody, you need the ball before you become unstoppable."
Bale was certainly known to the south coast club during Strachan's time there as the then 14-year-old athlete, capable of running 100m in 11.4 seconds, was training at their satellite academy in Bath. But the Scot had plenty of other talents to run the rule over. Southampton, where Alan Shearer took his first steps as a footballer, has also seen the rites of passage of Theo Walcott, Wayne Bridge, Dexter Blackstock, Andrew Surman and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, with current wonderkid Luke Shaw showing the magic dust is still there.
"I just missed Gareth but I had Theo Walcott," Strachan said. "They have made a fortune from that Academy and I mean a real fortune, if you tot up the ones who have left there."
Whether the enterprising 4-2-3-1 employed during the first 45 minutes on Wednesday – with Chris Burke and Steven Naismith out wide – leaves them vulnerable to the thrusts of Bale from the right, or whether they be better served with the more defensively-minded Charlie Mulgrew in a 4-4-2, Strachan doesn't envisage huge changes to the squad which served him well at Pittodrie.
But Gary Caldwell, whose wife had a baby last week, James Forrest and Ross McCormack could all come back into contention, and Strachan will make use of an SFA gadget called Wyscout to help reach a decision.
"I can't be there personally to watch them all but we have a wonderful thing here called Wyscout, so if I want to see Matt Phillips' last six games I can watch his every touch," said Strachan. "I can spend an hour and a half in the morning just watching Matt Phillips, every touch he has in all his games. It is a phenomenal tool."
Although his intensive media duties made his brain hurt more than usual, this was a positive start for the new manager. He made use of Aberdeen youth players to give his attacking and defensive players their own dedicated session and with five clear days to work ahead of the Wales match, he feels further close contact with his coaching methods can improve even veteran international players.
There is also more to come in terms of style, Strachan having asked his central defenders to play a more "basic" game than planned due to a gluepot of a Pittodrie pitch, but he was delighted with the response from the players, even if there was the odd double take. "They were great," Strachan said. "But they have to get my sense of humour because sometimes I will say something and they think 'is he serious'?"