You just knew that when Gordon Strachan’s Scotland team failed to reach that qualifiers the other night that Ireland, when it was their turn under Martin O’Neill, would show them how it was done. There was a certain inevitability about it which resisted all the media’s chit-chat in the lead up to the game about how Wales were the favourites.
The debate over which of the two was the better Celtic boss is one I could have all day and all night. Both saw us scale fantastic heights. Both also saw us endure terrible lows. They won three titles apiece; Martin did it in five years, Gordon did it in four. He also reached the latter stages of the Champions League twice. Martin took us to Seville.
Both were incredible bosses who didn’t get the ending at our club which they probably deserved. Martin tried to get one more season out of an ageing squad and came within minutes of making a success of it. Gordon should have gone after that night at Tannadice, and most of us probably realised that at the time although none could have grudged him another campaign. Under both we had become stale, and predictable.
Of course, everything looks better in hindsight.
When the two came up against each other, as the respective managers of Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, I thought Gordon came out of it best and not just because the results went his way. His time with the national team looked very promising. The first thing he did was announce that he would build the formation to suit the players available, instead of, as he put it “trying to put round pegs in square holes.” I applauded that.
Let’s be honest, neither boss inherited squads bristling with talent. Both took on workmanlike teams made up of reasonably good footballers, in a global game where almost every international country now has at least one player who could walk into any club team in the world. Hamsik, for example, who plays in Italy, looked like what he was last week; far and away the best technical footballer on the park. I was relieved when he went off. Wales punch above their weight, but can boast the phenomenal Gareth Bale when he’s available.
Neither Scotland nor Ireland has a player of comparable class.
Both men had difficult jobs on their hands, but whereas Martin approached his in a typically systematic fashion that appears not to have been the case with Scotland. The news that Strachan only informed his side a few hours before the weekend’s game that he was changing the entire system is a sign of something having gone awry. O’Neill would never have done that. He prepares meticulously. Hi approach is first rate.
He is also flexible in his attitude towards team building. He, too, has his favourites but it is inconceivable that he would have ignored Leigh Griffiths as long as Strachan did and he would have realised the value of having numerous players from the same club team out on the park for those crucial matches, instead of leaving McGregor out for the first and he and Forrest out for the second. Gordon also has one horrible tendency which we saw at Celtic Park and which, after his promising start, starting to creep into our national team during this campaign; he frequently plays people out of position. So much for not putting round pegs in square holes.
Andrew Robertson is a decent player, when he’s playing. But Kieran Tierney is easily the best left back eligible to play for Scotland, and he plays every week. There should no question of moving him to accommodate someone else. It is ridiculous.
Gordon persists with such stupidity, and especially after it’s pointed out to him. Few managers have such a bad reaction to being questioned about their decisions and the merest suggestion that he’s got something wrong can make him dig in his heels.
The results bear out these contradictions. Both had similar tools to work with, but one has been a success and the other has been a failure. You can blame luck as you like, but I don’t believe Scotland’s loss of that late, late goal against England was down to that, nor the laxity at the back which allowed the goals at the weekend. Luck played a hand in us getting as far as we did; the winner at Hampden last week was sheer good fortune.
Part of Gordon’s problem is that he put his faith in certain players who’s own club manager’s didn’t and ignored those who have been an integral part of success under Brendan. He focussed too much on players plying their trade at English clubs instead of tapping into the talents we have here at home. If McGregor were at a Championship side I bet he’d have won a half dozen caps under this guy. His persistence with players like Bannan and Fletcher, when what the team needed was energy and new dynamism, was suicidal.
Worse is that the teams under him have lacked cohesion and tactical discipline, which is something you could never say about teams under Martin O’Neill. The Irishman got the best out of what he had, in terms of the squad and those he selected for the games. The way his side played, and fought, was reminiscent of his Celtic teams.
The way Scotland’s players backed off and refused to press … neither Martin nor Brendan would have allowed it. The tempo in Saturday’s match was all off. Last night every Irish player covered every blade of grass. A neutral, watching it, would have known there was something at stake. Not so when you watched Scotland’s weak display.
In the aftermath of the games, Gordon made some truly ridiculous – actually astonishing – comments about how genetics have affected our ability to qualify. What nonsense. Had Pedro Caixinha come out with that kind of stuff I would have been writing about it right after he said it. Strachan ought not to be allowed to get away with those remarks; indeed, they drew a response from, amongst others, the First Minister, who derided the idea.
Chris Coleman, the Welsh manager, offered no excuses for his team going out. He simply accepted that on the night he had been bettered. Strachan would never have done that either.
I love the guy, but it’s clear which of our former bosses has left the greater mark on the international stage. Martin O’Neill will take his team to the playoffs, whilst Scotland’s players stay at home. That actually works out fairly well for Celtic, but I know our players are gutted and a lot of our fans are gutted that Scotland will not be flagging the flag in Russia.
It’s time Gordon Strachan’s tenure as Scotland boss came to an end.
He won the battle against Martin O’Neill, early in their tenures, but the Irishman won the war.