Gordon Strachan, more than once, bemoaned that he couldn’t call upon the services of a world class player like Gareth Bale or Robert Lewandowski as Scotland manager.
“We've got some good players there,” he said, repeating the message several times over the course of his four-year tenure as national team boss. “But world-class? No. I look at other squads and they are all in Champions League football. We have a problem there.”
His comments didn’t fly with many. If Strachan needed a player like Bale or Lewandowski to succeed, what was he bringing to the table as manager? What grated even more was how Strachan continually made such remarks while simultaneously overlooking an exciting generation of young Scottish players.
World class, they might not have been, but better than what Strachan picked over and over again? Almost certainly.
This week marks a new cycle, though. A fresh start. Well, at least in terms of the players on the pitch. The Scottish FA showed a desperate lack of imagination by appointing Alex McLeish as Strachan’s successor last month, after failing in approaches for Michael O’Neill and Walter Smith, with chief executive Stewart Regan paying for such a farcical search for a new manager with his job.
But while McLeish might be the stale embodiment of all that hinders the Scottish game as a whole, taking charge of the national team for a second stint, the squad picked last week for the upcoming friendlies against Costa Rica and Hungary suggest he is at least willing to recognise the green shoots of talent poking through the scorched earth.
While he denied it, Strachan undoubtedly had his favourites as Scotland manager. His old guard. But under intense pressure, with hopes of reaching the World Cup all but over after just a few qualifiers, Strachan bowed to intense public pressure and included a number of young players in his squad.
Finally, there were places for the likes of Stuart Armstrong, Tom Cairney, John McGinn, Callum McGregor and Leigh Griffiths, with Scotland’s form turning round almost instantly. They went unbeaten in competitive games in 2017, winning four from six qualifiers, but it was too late. On first impressions, McLeish seems determined not to make the same mistake.
There are call ups for Dylan McGeouch, the Hibernian midfielder who has impressed of late, and Scott McKenna, the Aberdeen centre back who was the subject of several January transfer window bids. Hearts goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin has also earned a place, with Barry Douglas finally selected as he enjoys the season of his life at Wolves.
Jason Cummings and Jamie Murphy have forced their way into the fold after January moves to Rangers, with on-loan Swansea City striker Oliver McBurnie called up too. Others, like Kenny McLean, Ryan Fraser, Ryan Christie and McGregor, who entered the fray towards the tail-end of Strachan’s reign have also kept their places.
Then there’s Scott McTominay, who after a discussion with McLeish pledged his international future to Scotland. The rise of the Manchester United midfielder has caught many by surprise this season, showing maturity beyond his years in becoming a key component of Jose Mourinho’s midfield.
His emergence couldn’t have been better timed from a Scottish perspective, with Scott Brown’s retirement leaving a void at the heart of McLeish’s side. Scotland need an anchoring, box-to-box midfielder. Now they have one performing at the highest level.
McTominay isn’t the only Scot currently proving himself at the highest level, either. Andy Robertson is one of Liverpool’s most in-form players at the moment, which is quite the feat given some of the performances Jurgen Klopp’s side have turned in recently. Long established as Scotland’s first choice left back, the 24-year-old is now fulfilling his potential at elite level.
Robertson might well be the once in a generation talent Scotland has waited longer than a generation for, but his case isn’t an isolated one. Also at left back, McLeish will have Kieran Tierney as an option. The Celtic defender is another once in a generation talent who is expected to reach the top of the game, with some even suggesting that he could ultimately eclipse Robertson. Tierney is so good he has been shoehorned in at centre back and right back for Scotland, because to leave him out would be such a waste.
Relatively speaking, Scotland stands on the brink of a golden generation. It won’t be a golden generation to rival that of Belgium or Spain’s, it won’t make them contenders at major tournaments, but it might be good enough to get them to a major tournament, which is the ultimate objective for every Scotland team in the modern age.
A lack of experience might count against the Dark Blues in their efforts to make Euro 2020, with not one of the current crop boasting international goals in double figures (Steven Fletcher is Scotland’s current top scorer with nine goals). Due to Strachan’s stubbornness, Scotland’s next generation are already playing catch up.
Many of them should have been inducted into the national team long before now. Take Cairney, for instance, who has been performing at Championship level for years, yet has just one cap to his name. Now he’s 27 and must immediately deliver for Scotland.
Not since the days of Berti Vogts has there been such an influx of youth. The German was maligned for going too far in calling up so many untested youngsters, but he inadvertently set up Scotland for a generation. James McFadden and Darren Fletcher were both handed their first caps by Vogts. McLeish will now be charged with bringing through a generation in a similar way.
There are still holes in the Scotland squad. McLeish will find a real deficiency at centre back, with a dearth of options hindering Scotland for years. Jack Hendry, Liam Lindsay, Ross McCrorie and John Souttar have all been mooted as potential solutions, with Hendry drafted into the squad following Tierney and Russell Martin’s withdrawal over the weekend, but none have truly shown themselves to be good enough yet.
In attack, Scotland are also light in options beyond Leigh Griffiths, who has struggled for much of the season though injury. Adding to McLeish’s tick list is a growing goalkeeping predicament. Craig Gordon isn’t the player he once was and could be replaced by Celtic at the end of the season. Allan McGregor has suffered a similar decline, while Jordan Archer and McLaughlin are untested at international level. There are a number of different issues to address.
McLeish might not have been the imaginative, visionary appointment craved by many Scotland fans, but if he’s willing to give youth a chance, in a way Strachan wasn’t, then fans should be excited.
Out of a bad situation could come better times.