Frustrating. Baffling. Finally infuriating.
Gordon Strachan changed the national team’s playing system before this game. Because we needed to win. Understandable, but frustrating because there have been times when that system looked as if it were going to bear fruit. It relies on the right players, of course. For a night like this you need guys who are super-fit. Determined. Keen. Preferably guys who play together every week. In the absence of that you simply need guys who play at all.
So of course, that’s the exact opposite of what we got.
Why does Strachan persist on playing guys who aren’t first team regulars? He will say they are the players who have been there for him. Through what? The period where he was on the verge of the sack. I credit him with making bad decisions all the way through this campaign. The worst of them was to ignore the obvious for so long; Leigh Griffiths is the best striker by far. Tonight the gripe is that he left Leigh on, injured, for as long as he did.
Or that’s one of the gripes anyway.
Against Slovakia, at Hampden, Strachan made substitutions which led to the goal. That proves only that it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good. The goal itself was more than a touch fortuitous; the entire night, we played balls into a packed penalty area and never remotely looked like scoring a goal. Strachan persisted with that, even bringing on Anya. It failed right up until the moment it succeeded. Football is full of stories like that.
Those stories are why some managers stay in jobs and others go.
Top class managers never need worry about their careers hanging on such a break of the ball. Strachan is a better manager than he sometimes gets credit for, but he is a remarkably stubborn one, even an arrogant one. He persists on doing things long after the case for changing them is obvious to all but the most blinkered. He would rather see a plan fail, spectacularly, than change it and admit that he might have been wrong in the first place.
Tonight he made another of those substitutions, one that infuriates you at the time but which the press will talk about as though it were a mark of genius. Yet there was almost no logic whatsoever in putting Snodgrass on when there were better options sitting on the benches.
There was zero logic at all to bringing on Fletcher.
If those substitutions – made about ten minutes after they should have been, which was directly after we lost the second goal – were typically Strachan then the first was simply inexplicable. You saw Griffiths was struggling, and thus all of us would have accepted an enforced substitution. But it was a tactical change, because he left Leigh on and brought Anya on in Martin’s place. The kicker is, by the time the change was made we’d lost the first goal.
What kind of logic is there in making a tactical change when the whole tactical situation has just been flipped on its head? Does it make a bit of sense to leave on a half fit striker as your only option up front in a must win game? Of course not.
But he did it anyway.
And from that point on we never looked at the races.
Too many players in that team looked knackered by the hour mark. That’s what comes of playing guys who don’t get games week in week out. Strachan, in common with a lot of managers south of the border, has a peculiarly English-centric take on the game and the players. There are players up here who’ll never get a look in under this guy; Callum would never have been selected except by necessity, for one thing, and he never got a minute of game time.
But the same could be said about young John McGinn, and some of the boys at Aberdeen. It doesn’t matter how well they play; the geography is against them. Instead he’ll pick guys who have contracts at low-level EPL and Championship teams first, game after game. Even Robertson, who has barely played a minute at Liverpool is played and so Tierney – the best natural full-back in Scotland one of the finest in Britain – is moved to accommodate him.
Ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.
Gordon Strachan has his favourites. His pals. Like Anya. Like McArthur. Like the Fletchers. The Snodgrass’s. And yes, the Martin’s. When Strachan goes, God willing some of these guys go with him. The few gems – Ritchie is a great player, Phillips could definitely do a job – are overwhelmingly outnumbered by those who contribute nothing at all.
Another World Cup campaign has ended. Do not expect leadership from the SFA. If Strachan doesn’t fall on his own sword there is no-one at Hampden with the cojones to thrust it into his back. These people will live with mediocrity until the cows come home.
Scotland fans are sick of the hard luck story. Glorious failure is simply abject failure with a positive spin. The prizes for second place are lousy, the proverbial “set of steak knives.” Remember how the next line in that movie goes? Yeah, “Third place is, you’re fired.”
As I said in an earlier piece, I have every respect for Gordon Strachan. I love the guy. I will forever be grateful for what he accomplished at Celtic Park.
But as someone else once said, “this ain’t show friends, it’s show business.”
And as sad as it is, this movie is finished. There is no point in being sentimental. This is something that has to be done.
Time to hit the bricks and beat it, Gordon.
Do the country a favour and make it easy.
Because I don’t think anybody up there has the brass balls to do what has to be done.