McLeish sparks optimism on his return as national manager

As the Scotland team dejectedly walked off the pitch in Ljubljana back in October following their 2-2 draw to Slovenia, a late Robert Snodgrass equaliser was not enough to see Scotland clinch that ever-elusive play-off spot. Following three consecutive victories against Lithuania, Malta and Slovakia, thousands of Scotland fans descended upon the Slovenian capital knowing a win would take them to the play-offs and the hope of a first major tournament since the 1998 World Cup in France.

A Leigh Griffiths goal after 32 minutes gave the Tartan Army faithful hope and Scotland had a 1-0 lead going into half time. However, two Slovenian goals by Roman Bezjak left Scotland with it all to do against a team that had not lost at home since June 2015. Snodgrass’ goal with two minutes to go was not enough and Scotland finished behind Slovakia on goal difference in Group F.

Only four days later, manager Gordon Strachan resigned, having managed his country for 40 games, winning 19 – a win percentage of 48 per cent. The SFA, much to the disgruntlement of the fans, did not have an immediate replacement for Strachan lined up, and initially identified Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill as their number one target.

Many questioned O’Neill’s managerial credibility, having only managed Brechin City and Shamrock Rovers before being given his national team job. However, O’Neill did guide Northern Ireland to Euro 2016, their first major tournament in 30 years before being eliminated by eventual semi-finalists Wales in the last 16. After talks with SFA officials, O’Neill declined the Scotland job and signed a contract extension as manager of Northern Ireland.

There was no appointment made in the five months following the departure of Gordon Strachan. However, on February 16, ex-Scotland manager Alex McLeish was appointed for his second spell as the national team manager. McLeish previously managed Scotland during the heart-breaking Euro 2008 qualifying campaign.

Despite James McFadden’s wonder goal in the Parc de Princes, Scotland finished in 3rd, behind then-world champions Italy and France, whom the Scots had beaten in both meetings in that campaign. Following the defeat to Italy at Hampden in the final game of qualifying, McLeish left to join Birmingham City, leaving with a win percentage of 70 per cent from his 10 games – the highest of any permanent Scotland manager.

McLeish’s appointment was met with mixed emotions across the country. Some had the view that he had ‘been there and done it’ as Scotland manager and had the credentials for the job, whereas others saw the appointment as a step backwards for the national team. McLeish acknowledged that he was not the first choice for the role but insisted that he was the ‘right man’ for the job and he wasted no time in appointing his backroom staff, bringing in Peter Grant, Stevie Wood and the hero from the Parc de Princes a decade ago, James McFadden.

Scotland’s first games in McLeish’s second spell are friendlies at home to Costa Rica on March 23, followed by Hungary in Budapest on March 27. Scotland fans were desperate to see new young talent brought into the squad and McLeish certainly obliged, including nine uncapped players in his squad for their upcoming friendlies.

Younger players, such as Barnsley striker Oli McBurnie and Aberdeen defender Scott McKenna have been called up but undoubtedly Scotland’s biggest coup is that of Manchester United midfielder, Scott McTominay. The 6ft 4in central midfielder has featured 17 times for José Mourinho’s side this season and it was Mourinho himself who encouraged Alex McLeish to call him up to the national side as he said “it looks like England is missing him”, and said that if he were Alex McLeish, the first thing he would do would be to call McTominay into his squad.

The optimism amongst the Tartan army has increased with a new, younger looking squad, headed by an experienced manager, which could finally end more than 20 years of pain and qualify for a major tournament.

 

Image courtesy of (Mick Baker) Rooster

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