The weather’s good, the cogs and wheels of the hype machine are oiled and whirring, metatarsals and cartilage are firmly on the news agenda. An international tournament summer is upon us.
Britain holds its breath. This time – for the first time since 1958 – the entire island. Wales and England have qualified and, after that dramatic penalty shootout against Serbia in November that sent a nation into raptures, Scotland too. It is the first time since 1998 that the Tartan Army have had their horse in the race at a major finals.
For fans, there is the promise of a heady next few weeks. And for the few lucky enough to have been to a tournament wrapped in the Saltire before, this Euros brings back memories of bygone technicolour summers and sunburn on far-flung football fields. Gordon Strachan is among those few, having travelled to two World Cups. It is a subject about which he appears happy to reminisce.
— Planet Sport (@PlanetSportcom) June 9, 2021
His first tournament came when Jock Stein selected him for Spain 82 as a 25-year-old. What was it like dealing with that pressure, the pressure that the Scotland players will be feeling now? Speaking at a Betfair event, Strachan chuckles: “It’s that long ago, to be honest with you, I’ve not got a clue.
“But the media expectation is nothing like now. It’s grown so much, the World Cup and European nations tournament… Now it’s non-stop, it’s everywhere. All we did was make a silly record.
“The real pressure was, ‘Can I play well here? Can somebody buy me? Can I get over my 250 quid a week up to something decent?’ It was a big platform. Nobody else in the world had seen you then, apart from at the World Cup.”
Strachan was man of the match in his first-ever World Cup game, setting up three goals as Scotland swatted aside New Zealand 5-2. But asked to recall a standout moment from the tournament, he chooses one from the following day at the team hotel. “My favourite memory was telling James Bond to put his cigar out,” he says with a smile.
As part of their preparations, the players were summoned by Stein to watch the game between the two other teams in their group, Brazil and the USSR. “In those days you just got in the living room with a big telly,” Strachan says. “There was not analysis and all that.
“We got in and it was pitch black. I had to sit beside the settee. Alex McLeish was above me and I was sitting on the floor. Me being me, I went, ‘Who’s got a cigar?… We’re top athletes in here, how are we meant to win World Cups when somebody’s smoking a cigar in here?’
“And I heard the James Bond voice and big Alex nudged me in the back and went, ‘That sounds like James Bond.’ I went, ‘It fucking is.’ He (Sean Connery) was watching the game with Jock Stein. He said, ‘Do you want me to put it out?’ I said, ‘Dae what ye want, big man, I’ve seen you in action.’
Did he put it out? “No, he kept smoking,” Strachan laughs again.
Stein was an influence on him, he says, tactically adept – for example employing zonal marking before it was widely popular – but utterly clear in his messaging. “It was just basic stuff that a man would say to a man… He said to me, ‘Is it fair to say, Gordon, if you’re not making chances and passing the ball, you’re nae use to us? So that’s what you’ve got to do, OK?’
“I remember big Alex [McCleish] being at the back of the six-yard box with about three players lined up against him. And Alex said, ‘Gaffer, I’ve got three people here.’ He said, ‘You only need one to head the ball, son. Just make sure it’s you.’ Real simple stuff.”
• • • •
• • • •
Yet faced with that Brazil team even Stein’s effective management was not enough. “That was the first time we’d played against people who were different, really different,” Strachan remembers. “In terms of their physique, their core strength, their height, their ability.
“Before the game we had wah strips off in the tunnel and big Alex has got his strip off and he’s got all spots on his chest and his white body and they come out and the way he looked at them was like, ‘Woah, woah, woah. What’s up with them?’
“Even the smallest one, Junior, who was probably the best left-back in the world, I went to challenge him and I thought, ‘I’ll go and shoulder charge him and just let him know I’m here.’ I was like one of these cartoon characters that crash into wee bits and crumble. Everyone talks about their ability, but their midfield were all 6’2”, 6’3”. Cerezo, Falcao, Socrates, the three were huge.
“For about 25 minutes, [we were] excellent. Then we annoyed them by scoring a goal. Bad move. Then they put goals past us left, right and centre.”
Scotland lost 4-1 to Brazil and went out on goal difference after drawing with the Soviet Union in their third game. In 1986, there was similar frustration. They finished bottom of a difficult group with Germany, Denmark and Uruguay, by which time Sir Alex Ferguson had taken over as manager following the tragic death of Stein after a World Cup qualifier at Ninian Park in Cardiff.
In Sir Alex, Strachan was reunited with the man who had managed him at Aberdeen and who would soon become his club manager again at Manchester United. “He had the room next to me though which was nae great because he could nae sleep at night and he’s got a nervous cough, so I found it difficult to sleep. But it was good, we were talking football.”
Strachan remembers the hotel rooms being “seriously horrible” but, as he says: “Mexico had just been devastated by an earthquake about 18 months previous.” He recalls the extreme hardship that he saw, which gave him a better understanding of the “psyche” of Latin American players who will do anything “just to stay in the game”.
Over lockdown, he finally got a chance to see the games from that World Cup again, watching his goal and Scotland’s impressive performance in a 2-1 defeat against Germany. “I thought football at that time was putting the ball from one end to the other. But you look at it and there’s huge gaps in midfield and everybody’s trying to play out from the back.
World Cup 1986#OnThisDay
Gordon Strachan’s famous strike and celebration, gives Scotland 🏴 the lead against West Germany 🇩🇪 in their 2-1 defeat.
This was Graeme Souness’s 54th and final appearance for Scotland.
Commentator John Motson #Scotland #BBC pic.twitter.com/jwR65sxZ3l
— TV Football 1968-92 (@1968Tv) June 8, 2021
“Roy Aitken was terrific, I mean terrific. So I got his phone number and congratulated him 35 years later for having a good game. I says, ‘Roy, it’s Gordon. I’ve just watched this game, I thought you were terrific. I did nae realise you were as good as that. Well done big fella, see ya later.’”
Now, after such a long wait, he is looking forward to the Euros like any other Scotland fan. With games being played at Hampden this time around, he says it “could nae have worked out any better” and believes that, despite the restrictions on attendances, a home crowd will be more of a boost than a burden.
“I don’t think there’s a weight on their shoulders,” he says. “We’re there now, that’s the most important thing. The weight was getting by Serbia and dealing with the penalty shootout.
“We can definitely get out the group stage, definitely. We’re one of the teams in the tournament that a lot of people probably don’t want to play. Because we have five at the back, with some good players in there, and we have a solid, solid midfield.”
On Monday 14 June against the Czech Republic at Hampden, that theory will finally be put to the test.
By Joshua Law
This Euros Betfair is now offering No Cash Out Suspensions on Match Odds markets, find out more here: https://betting.betfair.com/football/euro-2020/