A FEW days after Malky Mackay had taken charge of Scotland in their friendly with the Netherlands at Pittodrie back in 2017, he sat down with the members of the SFA board for a post-match debriefing.

Mackay, the governing body’s then national performance director, had returned to the dugout on an interim basis due to Gordan Strachan departing after an unsuccessful Russia 2018 qualifying campaign.

He offered his assessment of the squad he had worked with and his view on what the future might hold at the gathering.

The former Watford, Cardiff City and Wigan Athletic manager, who had handed international debuts to Ryan Christie, Jason Cummings, Ryan Jack and Callum McGregor against the Dutch, told those in attendance that he could foresee better times ahead.

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“They had an incredibly good core of players there,” he said. “I believed there was a group of mobile and technically proficient young footballers coming through.

“I was sure that if the next manager could keep them together and help them to grow then we would soon have a national team that could beat mid to high-ranking European opposition. Over the last few years, that is exactly what they have managed to achieve. It has been terrific to see.”

The Herald:

Yet, Mackay, who had started with West Bromwich Albion winger Matt Phillips up front against Dick Advocaat’s men, also warned that Scotland had a major problem in one key position which needed to be addressed.

“I pointed out that we didn’t have a particular strength in depth, have anything at all in fact, at centre-forward,” he said. “I informed them that we had a serious issue there. Sadly, there is still not an abundance of strikers coming through.”

Steve Clarke named no fewer than five forwards in his 25 man squad for the Euro 2024 qualifier against Cyprus in Larnaca tonight and England in the 150th Anniversary Heritage Match at Hampden on Tuesday – and left Jacob Brown of Premier League newcomers Luton Town out.

Che Adams, Christie, Lyndon Dykes, Kevin Nisbet and Lawrence Shankland – who have collectively been on target on no fewer than 11 occasions in the 2023/24 season - will all be hopeful of adding to their haul of caps and goals in the coming days.

Still, the superstar, the Gareth Bale, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Harry Kane, Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo, who Strachan longed to see break through during his tenure has still not materialised six years on.  

Scotland’s striker production line drying up was something that the ex-Queen’s Park, Celtic, Norwich City, West Ham United and Watford centre half had quickly identified and sought to tackle after he had succeeded Brian McClair as performance director the year before.

He felt the rise in popularity of possession-based high-pressing tactics and the increasing use of the 4-3-3 formation in the 21st century had been directly responsible for a dramatic reduction in the number of top-class predators emerging in Scottish football.

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“The fact we moved away from a traditional 4-4-2 set-up all those years ago meant that every team in the country lost a centre-forward,” he said. “That eventually filtered down into the academies. They started playing with a 4-3-3 as well. A by-product of that years later is that you have a dearth of centre forwards.

“Very few players coming through wanted to be a centre-forward because of the physical challenges of the role. You are either going to have to be a Jamie Vardy, someone who chases pigeons, or a Didier Drogba, someone with strength who has the ability to hold the ball up and bring other people into the game. Suddenly, it became a difficult position.”

The Herald:

Mackay’s approach to the conundrum was two-fold. He and his colleagues set about trying to unearth players who were eligible to represent Scotland but had not come through the system in this country as youngsters. He also asked for a much-needed change of mindset at grassroots level.

One of his schemes has already borne fruit. “We went out and hunted down talent,” he said. “We opened up a talent ID department at the SFA. We wanted to find players we could naturalise. That is something that is growing at countries around the world, trying to find talent from other countries that you are able to naturalise.

“At the time, the three that I was targeting was Angus Gunn, Che Adams and Harvey Barnes. All three had Scottish heritage. We were chipping away at them at the time. But all three said, ‘No, we’re going to wait if that’s okay and just bide our time’. That was fine. We weren’t going to force people. But we were certainly hunting down people.”

Adams, who qualifies to play for Scotland through an Edinburgh-born grandmother, finally decided to pledge his allegiances to this country back in 2021. He has since netted five goals in 23 appearances, featured in the Euro 2020 finals and firmly established himself as a regular starter for his adopted homeland.

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Having scored three goals for Southampton in the Championship in the 2023/24 campaign, he will, barring injury or illness, either lead the line or come off the bench in the Euro 2024 qualifier against Cyprus. 

However, Mackay, who has played Scots Eamonn Brophy, Simon Murray and Jordan White in attack with his current club Ross County once again this term, is optimistic there will be an increase in the number of home-grown goalscorers in the coming seasons as a result of an appeal he made while he was at the SFA.    

The Herald:

“We put on a striker coaching masterclass in Scotland,” he said. “We invited 200 coaches from around the country to Oriam and brought in Kenny Dalglish, Eric Black and Henrik Larsson as guest speakers. We took the coaches through seminars and practical sessions and held Q&As. It was a terrific day.

“The guys were all fabulous. The Q&A that Kenny did was like gold dust. Eric is a terrific coach educator and offered some amazing insights. Henrik is not a coach educator, not an academic who stands in lecture theatres.

“But we showed some of his goals on a giant screen, got him to talk through some of the things he saw, like his movement. He then answered questions. It was sensational. Some of the nuggets he came away with were incredible.

“When we wrapped it up, I challenged the coaches and told them that we need more strikers in this country. I asked them to go back in to the academies and make it a position that players want to be in, to make it a sexy position again, to make kids desperate to play up front.

“If they don’t, we are going to have this problem for years.”

In Striking Out tomorrow: Scotland great Kevin Gallacher on why strikers have disappeared – and how to get them back