Pink with embarrassment


World Cup Russia 2018, photo by Nazionale Calcio

It was, I suppose, inevitable. Ever since the day that Scotland’s shocking pink away strip was unveiled, it was only a matter of time before they put in a performance wearing it that would leave their faces the same colour.

That performance came last night in Slovakia, which came on the back of a similarly dismal showing against Lithuania in Glasgow on Saturday.

I didn’t see either game; I was flying during the first one and the second was (mercifully perhaps) not shown here in Malaysia. But the results tell their own story and unfortunately it’s a familiar horror story for we Scotland fans.

The World Cup in Russia looks a long way away from here.

It’s never ever a pleasure to call for a manager’s sacking and on this occasion it is made all the harder by the fact that I am a big fan of Gordon Strachan. Upon taking the job he made some real progress of the sort that we have not seen with the national side since Craig Brown’s time in charge.

The problem now is that the progress has not simply stalled, it is being slowly but surely reversed.

Strachan’s decision making has become increasingly bizarre. Chris Martin, good honest pro that he is, cannot be considered an international class central forward. Leigh Griffiths almost certainly is yet the Scotland boss has shown an almost comic reluctance to play him.

As ever, we lack creativity. Young Burke looks like he possesses some but he was omitted from last night’s debacle altogether. Answers on a postcard please (or in the comments below).

In the post-match press conference, Strachan looked crestfallen and lost. His renowned wit was almost entirely absent. Reporters were still probably thinking “whit?” rather than wit following the analysis the manager produced in the aftermath of the Lithuania game.

He suggested his side had been “unlucky”, that the draw may come to be seen as “a good point in the end” and that “Chris Martin was outstanding upfront.” So outstanding that he was promptly dropped for the next game.

It’s understandable that managers defend and protect their players in public. But it’s insulting to supporters to do so in a way that completely mischaracterises the game that they have just watched. Most supporters are nowhere near as knowledgeable about the game as their confidently expressed opinions would suggest, but neither are they fools.

A manager that starts to treat them as such – however inadvertently or noble the intent – will soon lose their confidence. Strachan has now lost that confidence among large sections of the Scottish support and, more worryingly, perhaps also among sections of the squad.

There was the usual rousing talk from the players pre-match, followed by the customary damp squib during it. They have let down another manager and can probably already start making summer holiday plans for the summer of 2018.

I hope some of them choose Russia. They should go to watch, to learn, and to think what might have been.

Of course that assumes that we don’t qualify and the crazy thing is, despite all the doom and gloom of today, the campaign is not beyond salvaging. The only correct observation that Strachan made after the Lithuania game was that it’s a ‘strange group.’

England, lamentable again last night, remain every bit as much strangers to their potential as we are to major international tournaments. Next month at Wembley should be interesting.

Will Strachan still be in charge for that game? I suspect he probably will. Even though I think his time should be up, there’s not exactly a plethora of excellent candidates waiting in the wings.

Strachan has recovered from Slovakian humiliation before but Wembley, for all of England’s glaring deficiencies, is still not the ideal place to check in for rehab.

The clash of the auld enemies will no doubt reproduce all the old blood and thunder but both nations are in desperate search of new answers. After Big Sam’s little mishap and short reign, Gareth has stepped in and been unable to halt England’s southerly slide. He will likely welcome the visit of the northerly neighbours.

The Tartan Army will travel brave of heart and full of bladder. The pink strip can be left behind in Slovakia, but the fear is that those supporters will only leave Wembley feeling even more blue.

In search of freedom … from Mel Gibson

The Tartan Army. Photo by: Ronnie MacDonald

The Tartan Army. Photo by: Ronnie MacDonald

The draw for the qualifying stages of the 2018 World Cup took was conducted while I was asleep. To be honest, I’d forgotten that it was even taking place last weekend. When I awoke, it was to discover the sudden appearance of Mel Gibson all over my Facebook feed. There he was, charging forward, arm extended, offering the hand of … well, not exactly friendship.

Scotland v England; the auld enemy drawn together in the same group. Two competitive matches to anticipate. Fortunately, the recent progress that Scotland has made under Gordon Strachan means that those matches will actually be competitive. England start as big favourites of course but they can expect a stern test at both Hampden and Wembley.

Strachan said that “the whole of Scotland are roaring” after the draw: “they make take all three points, but they will never take our underdog sense of grievance” or something like that.

Scotland v England is the oldest international fixture in the world and it may be a little bit of an understatement to describe the rivalry as intense. I’m all in favour of intense rivalry and even more in favour of the ‘banter’ that stokes it. I must also confess (and I’m not particularly proud of this) that I tend to support whichever opposition England happen to be facing.

That said, I have very little time for the ‘stand up if you hate England’ brigade. It’s a song (and there are plenty of others like it) that gets repeated airings at Hampden and never fails to strike me as rather pathetic.

I am a very patriotic Scot but not a nationalist (at least not in the contemporary context of Scottish politics). I think there’s a perfectly reasonable case to be made for Scottish independence and it’s one that it is sometimes but not always made by the SNP. It’s not a case that I find entirely convincing however and that’s why I would’ve voted no in last year’s referendum if I’d been entitled to vote (something denied to me as a Scot living overseas).

While there were some very positive aspects of the referendum campaign – the level of engagement among young people for instance – it did bring to the surface the dark and unseemly underbelly of Scottish nationalism. There lurks hatred of the English and indeed hatred of anyone (“traitors” is the term often employed) of anyone who doesn’t share their zeal for independence.

I sincerely hope that the forthcoming games are remembered as a sporting spectacle and that the banter remains exactly that and doesn’t become something altogether uglier.

The matches promise to be two great occasions and you should definitely take the chance to watch if you like your football with a generous side serving of intensity. These will be games for the brave rather than faint of heart, on the pitch and in the stands.

Between now and then, I’ve no doubt that Mel Gibson will be making a few more appearances on Facebook.