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Splash of ginger is pleasant taste for Scotland fans

FIRST appearances can be deceptive when it comes to Scotland managers but, judging by the amount of feisty wee forward players on show last night, this already seems to be a team in the manager's image.

Steven Naismith looked to get on to the end of things at every opportunity
Steven Naismith looked to get on to the end of things at every opportunity

The likes of Shaun Maloney, Chris Burke, Steven Naismith and Scott Brown – all comfortably short of six foot – are all at least partially cut from the same cloth as the Scotland manager and all were to the fore in a satisfying debut at the manager's former home of Pittodrie. It was a bit like Barcelona on Buckfast.

Burke even shares the same peelly-wally complexion and ginger hair as his manager so perhaps it was fitting that the Birmingham City winger should be the star turn. The former Rangers winger is a statistical oddity in Strachan's squad, the owner of a proud record of two goals in his two previous internationals, yet someone who has not troubled the selectors for seven years. Burke is nothing if not in form, his recent displays at club level impressive enough for him to be the subject of three failed bids from Alex McLeish at Nottingham Forest this window, only for him to repay his former manager with the two goals at the weekend that effectively paved the way for his departure from the City Ground.

Working in tandem with Real Mallorca new boy Alan Hutton, in his 45 minutes on the field, Burke tormented Estonia down the right. One wicked cross was headed narrowly over by the otherwise impressive Steven Fletcher as the winger got in behind almost at will.

Maloney caught the eye, too, forcing a couple of smart saves from Sergei Pareiko, while Naismith looked to get on the end of things at every opportunity. Behind them, in Strachan's 4-2-3-1 shape was Brown, setting the tone for his side in a so-called friendly by knocking the ball out for an Estonia throw rather than giving them more comfortable possession as he railed against some perceived injustice or another.

Unlike that day in Tallinn eight years ago, both teams turned up at a wet, cold and windy Pittodrie and Taijo Teniste, the visitors' left-back, took out some of his frustration from tracking the effervescent Burke with a couple of long-range efforts, one of which forced a watchful tip over from McGregor. Tarmo Kink, a man who played under Strachan at Middlesbrough, had the chance to spoil his big night when he ran on to the cutest of scooped passes from Konstantin Vassiljev, only to be denied by the body of the goalkeeper.

Charlie Mulgrew is another man with whom Strachan has previous, having sold him to Wolverhampton Wanderers at the same time Lee Naylor was heading in the other direction, but there is no animosity between the two men. Indeed, allowing Mulgrew to leave the closeted world of the Celtic youth team for the big, bad world might just have been the best thing Strachan could have done.

The Celtic defender repaid the favour by scoring his first goal for Scotland and the first of the new regime from a well-worked training-ground routine. Having warmed to the task at left-back, Mulgrew was even unfortunate not to double his money in the second period, forcing Pareiko into a fine save from his driven half volley.

The Scotland manager spoke in the days leading up to the game of having two teams and two formations in mind, and true to his word, Strachan switched to a 4-4-2 in the second half and started playing a longer game.

After the kind of assured display that virtually assures him of his place against Wales on March 22, Fletcher – a man whom Strachan tried and failed to sign for Celtic while the player was impressing at Hibernian – duly made way for another Strachan regular in the form of Kenny Miller. Further demonstrations of the strength and depth that the manager possesses from middle to front came from the likes of Jordan Rhodes, Robert Snodgrass, James Morrison, James McArthur and Kris Commons.

Behind all this flux, Strachan kept the defence unchanged, and it was a vote of confidence in a beleaguered unit that Andy Webster, a veteran of Craig Levein's first match in charge, should inherit the captain's armband.

First appearances can be deceptive for Scotland managers; you have to go back to March 2005 for the last national team coach to actually lose one of their opening fixtures. That was Walter Smith against Italy at the San Siro – an inauspicious start to one of the better stints in recent memory – with Levein winning his opener in a friendly against the Czech Republic and even George Burley managing a draw against Croatia straight off the bat.

A phalanx of photographers had captured the money shot as Strachan trooped out of the same tunnel he had done as a raw 20-year-old some 35 years ago, a moment to adorn the family album for ever. After a night where it was hard to quibble with anything much, he also now has a 100% record as Scotland manager to go along with it. It would be nice to think he might be able to hold on to that for a little bit longer.

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