Gordon Strachan is a guy I have the utmost respect for. He is a manager who I will never be anything but grateful to for one of the finest memories I have as a Celtic fan; the incredible turnaround season when we snatched the league on the last night, at Tannadice.
That was a special one, especially the catharsis it provided from the death of Tommy Burns.
The Tartan Army deserved last night, and it was fitting that a Scotland side that has suffered so much from last minute setbacks should go to Slovenia this coming week buoyant and confident on the back a last minute winner. The goal itself was more than a little fortunate; their goalkeeper had the game of his life and Skrtel made one mistake in the match, and it turned out to be the crucial moment when he turned the ball into his own net.
But before it, of course, came Leigh Griffiths, battling for the ball, and his perfect pass to Anya wide on the right.
It was a Griffiths who we’ve seen more and more in the last few months, the one who was able to get into the teams against Sevco and Anderlecht ahead of Moussa Dembele. An athletic Griffiths. A team player. A grafter par excellence.
He’s improved beyond measure, to the point where many Celtic fans now think he is the indispensable forward. Outside Celtic Park, others have noticed this too. How could they not? His two goals against England, on their own, were enough to put seven figures on his value.
Newcastle are sniffing. They should get their house in order before trying to upset ours; Griffiths would not go there anyway, not for all the money in the world. He knows what he can be here; not simply another goal scorer but a legend. Perhaps even an icon.
Leigh was being criticised not that long ago.
Our manager wasn’t impressed with certain aspects of his game, and his attitude. There was that famous mini-bust up last season when he reacted badly to being taken off. Another manager (the one across the city for example) might have reacted badly to that, seeing it as a challenge to his position.
Brendan is too sophisticated for that, and Leigh cannot have missed that. He treated the player like a gifted child who sometimes goes off the rails; the rod was not the way to bring him into line. Leigh works best with encouragement. He listens to guidance. The results are obvious, even startling. He is blossoming before our eyes. He will be the complete striker.
And he’s not the only one, of course.
The Stuart Armstrong of two years ago would not have been feted by clubs south of the border. Callum McGregor was about as far away from being a Scottish international as one could get. He was a middling player in a slot where Scotland was already well represented by middling players. Nevertheless, he was miles from being capable of playing at that level, or so it seemed. Out of position in a holding role, he looked doomed to mediocrity.
Then there’s James Forrest, and I already thought my namesake, in achieving mediocrity, had gone as far in the game as he was going to go. All the early promise seemed to be gone. He had stagnated, gone backward. He was a player I described as perfectly encapsulating the word “useless.” A winger who was too weak to go past any but average players. A winger who was incapable of even crossing the ball. Eighteen months ago I thought his Celtic career was over.
Today he is a better player than the kid who exploded onto the scene just five years ago. He scores goals. He works tremendously hard for the team. He is stronger, fitter, controls the ball better and – joy of joys – his crosses are often exceptional. James Forrest is on his way to becoming the player we all thought, that we all hoped, he might be.
Craig Gordon too is living the dream at the moment; he must have thought he was finished too, his injury problems seemed to have wrecked any chance he had of making it back to the top. Now here his, playing for Scotland, playing Champions League football, a treble winner, an Invincible. Craig Gordon has grown as a player too.
None has grown more than Tierney.
If there is a better footballer in Scotland’s ranks than Kieran Tierney I do not know his name unless it’s Scott Brown. Kieran was a Ronny discovery; he got his start in the team under the Norwegian and quickly proved well worth his place. But under Brendan he has truly shone, even against top players in Champions League games. Last night he played on the right of the Scottish defence – not his natural position – but he looked very well placed.
Brown is another category again. He has been transformed under Brendan; nothing gets past him in the middle of the park. He is the leader of our team and the national team both. It is hard to imagine a Celtic midfield without his presence in it, but that’s something we need to start thinking about from this year onward. These are without doubt the finest years of his glittering career and that’s down to the confidence he has in his manager and the manager’s confidence in him. It has allowed Scott to become a truly top class performer.
Gordon Strachan is the beneficiary of all this at the international level; it is the Celtic cadre which has driven the national team forward these past few months. They were the architects of the comeback, the lynchpins of the team that got those results. The Celtic influence is clear at every level of the national setup. The players took their telepathic understanding, forged at Lennoxtown and in front of the best fans in the world, to the international stage.
Strachan deserves credit for getting past his initial reservations about some of these guys; we all harboured those reservations. We all had those doubts. They were not unreasonable. Those players all had to prove themselves on that stage.
It was Brendan Rodgers who forged these players into the weapons Strachan has used to claw his way back into contention, to put Scotland within 90 minutes of a play-off for a World Cup. We’re not there yet; this is such a typically Scottish story that no-one will be terribly surprised if it all goes wrong in the last game.
Yet that doesn’t seem likely, not with so many of Brendan’s Bhoys in this team. They have a never-say-die spirit that has taken them this far, not just for Scotland but domestically as well, and given us a real shot of still playing European football after Christmas.
What a fantastic result that was for Scotland last night.
And it was especially pleasing that it came stamped with the mark of the Champions.
All the credit for that belongs to the Celtic boss.