• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Familiar territory but new ground is there for the taking, insists McGhee

For all that Scotland fans yearned for a transformation, radical thinking is not likely to be part of the new management regime.

Gordon Strachan has 'a very clear picture  of how he wants the team to play,' says  Mark McGhee.
Gordon Strachan has 'a very clear picture of how he wants the team to play,' says Mark McGhee.

There was nothing dramatic, after all, in Gordon Strachan selecting a squad that, Chris Burke and Lee Wallace apart, was essentially the same as the one his predecessor would have chosen. The presence of the new manager made yesterday's first training session a little frantic and tense, but otherwise the occasion must have felt resoundingly familiar to the players.

Scotland do not have the means to make drastic alterations to the national team. The prolonged absence of Steven Fletcher caused supporters to question Craig Levein's judgment, but few other selection decisions were railed against. The pool of available players is not deep enough to leave room for consternation. There will be new ideas from Strachan and his coaching staff, but it is the change in mood that will be the most potent influence. Even that is a fragile state, though, since Levein tended towards grandstanding optimism that quickly became a bane.

The former Scotland manager said recently that the conviction he used when discussing the worth of his players was a ploy. The team ended up suffering from a sense of underachievement, none the less, because he so vividly talked up their potential. The reality is that Scotland have decent international players middle to front, and fewer options in every other area of the team. Strachan is managing the same imbalance in resources as his predecessor, so nobody ought to expect a dramatic change.

"They're the same players, but they're playing better now than they were then, it's as simple as that," said Mark McGhee, the Scotland assistant manager. "That gives me more hope. These are not new players that we've plucked from nowhere and we're not about to come in with a system that Craig Levein didn't know about. We're simply hopefully going to take advantage of players who have become better."

McGhee was not delivering a rallying cry when he talked of individuals having improved a little in the last few months, but he would have understood that such a gesture would sound futile anyway. Fans craved the removal of Levein because they lost faith in his ability and felt that the players were capable of better performances. That kind of mood is inevitable when results are consistently poor, but a dispassionate analysis of Scotland's World Cup qualifiers so far would also acknowledge that the results were decided on fine margins.

McGhee, for instance, has watched the game against Wales on four occasions in total now, and there are still long periods of the game in which he cannot see how Scotland could surrender their advantage. There is some easy solace to be found in accepting that the winning goal was scored by a truly exceptional player in Gareth Bale, but carelessness and indecision among the Scotland players contributed to the defeat.

There is no sweeping action that can alter Scotland's fortunes. Beginning with tomorrow night's friendly against Estonia at Pittodrie, Strachan will be hoping that by applying his own judgment and implementing his own values into the team, the small margins can be breached. It was instructive, for example, to hear McGhee make the same observations as Levein about Jordan Rhodes – "he's a great finisher. The rest of his game, I've not seen enough to say that he's an international player or even a top Premiership player" – and how the Blackburn striker might fit into the team when Steven Fletcher remains the leading centre-forward.

"You've got Fletcher, you've got [Rhodes], you've got [Shaun] Maloney, you've got [Steven] Naismith, you've got Burke, a lot of options in how you can set up the front," McGhee said. "Whether we can go with two out-and-out centre-forwards is something in the modern game . . . I know that frustrates fans and it's the question that everyone is asking, so it remains to be seen."

It is not inconceivable, then, that Scotland continue to field a side with one recognised striker in front of a tier of attacking midfielders. Given the balance of the squad, it is also the best use of resources, even if some supporters still cling to the traditional view that a strike partnership is more adventurous. There are entrenched views to overcome, but Strachan at least has the benefit of being considered a fresh, invigorating presence.

He can be adamant in his views, but when there are only a handful of training sessions ahead of a game, that kind of certainty can be an advantage. The players were rapt yesterday, because they are sussing him out as much as he and his staff are making detailed observations. There is a sense of promise around the new management team, simply because they replaced individuals whose reputations had grown stale.

"He [Strachan] has watched the national team for a long time and he has a very clear picture of how he wants the team to play," McGhee said. "He recognises the strengths of this group of players, and possibly weaknesses, and feels he has to find a way of giving them the best chance of playing as well as they are for their clubs. We've got to hit the ground running and it's important that you don't fudge things and you're not experimenting, that you have a clear picture of how it will work. Gordon has that."

An international manager is more reliant on personality than strategising, since his time with the squad is so limited. Kenny Miller is now playing under his ninth Scotland manager and, although there were hapless individuals such as Berti Vogts and George Burley, and temporary appointments such as Tommy Burns and Billy Stark, he also experienced Walter Smith and Alex McLeish rejuvenating the team at a time of despair. "Walter came in and it was the same group of players who were underachieving and whether it was down to tactics of his man-management, every single player got a lift," the striker said. "There's another few gears [in the squad]."

There is little to be gained from shunning hope all together. Even so, nobody is likely to make bold statements about Scotland's World Cup qualifying campaign when the team are bottom of Group A. Strachan's appointment has been an opportunity to dismiss the woes of the opening matches and imagine, instead, that there might be a brighter future.

There is a sense of nostalgia, though, about Strachan and McGhee beginning their work in Aberdeen, where they once defied convention as players. The latter left Pittodrie by the side door when he was sacked as manager three years ago and has not been back since. McGhee could feel redeemed by his current status, but there is too much at stake for personal grudges to belittle the occasion. "My feelings are a little bit mixed going back," he said. "But this is the national team and I'm not going to let that be devalued by the fact I had a difficult time there for a while as manager. We have a different purpose."

Contextual targeting label: 
Sport

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

139123