A persecution complex often envelops a manager in trouble but Gordon Strachan cannot blame a disgruntled Scottish support or media for treating Slovenia’s visit to Hampden Park on Sunday as a defining moment for his reign. That responsibility lies with his employer, the SFA chief executive, Stewart Regan, and a sequence of results that have turned World Cup qualification into a distant prospect with four qualifying matches played.
“That’s really a must-win game for Scotland,” Regan said last month when looking ahead to the country’s first competitive fixture since the 3-0 defeat by England in November. “We know how important it is to get our campaign back on track. Gordon knows it. The team knows it.”
Having in effect been granted a stay of execution following the loss at Wembley – Scotland’s second consecutive 3-0 reverse in qualifying – Strachan will know the consequences of failing to secure maximum points on Sunday.
Echoing Regan, Strachan said: “There’s no grey areas to it – it’s must-win. That’s dealing with reality. But sometimes when you have a challenge like that in life, it brings the best out of you so we will have a team ready for that challenge of ‘must‑win’ tomorrow.
“What we don’t have to do is win it in the first five or 10 minutes. You never know in big games when your opportunity will come along. However, what we do have to do is make opportunities and the players we pick tomorrow will make those opportunities.”
Preparations for Slovenia have been in keeping with a flat, dispiriting campaign. Scotland were jeered off a bog of an Easter Road pitch on Wednesday when drawing 1-1 with Canada, a side ranked 117th in the world. The game attracted a crowd of 9,158 and, as the assistant manager, Mark McGhee, had no other choice but to admit afterwards, there was nothing positive to take from it. Other than the conclusion that several fringe players are not ready for a crucial World Cup qualifier and the experienced heads of Scott Brown, Steven Fletcher and co may have to be called on again.
Strachan needs not only three points against Srecko Katanec’s team but to restore the sense that, after four years in charge, Scotland have an identifiable way of playing, a trusted core and increasing competition for places. Canada provided a counter-argument on every score and merely reinforced the belief that Scotland’s manager is now operating on a game-by-game basis. The pressure at Hampden on Sunday is of Scotland’s own making.
The former Celtic manager has won eight of 20 competitive matches in charge of his country – Gibraltar and Malta the source of three of the victories – and four points from the opening four games have left Scotland at serious risk of seeing another major international tournament pass them by. Only the whipping boys of Malta sit below them in Group F. They have kept one clean sheet in their past 10 competitive fixtures – again, it does not carry much weight when it comes against Gibraltar – and the lack of service to Chris Martin on Wednesday was another, ongoing concern.
Slovenia – like Northern Ireland, Montenegro and others – offer a stark contrast to Scotland as a country of modest resource who have developed a cohesive, effective international team. The seasoned Srecko Katanec has led Slovenia to second in the table behind England and overseen a run of seven matches unbeaten, their best sequence for 16 years. It may encourage Strachan, however, that their strongest performances have been reserved for home soil.
There was no appetite for another managerial change at the top of the SFA last autumn after the losses to Slovakia and England left Strachan contemplating his future as manager.
Four home games in 2017 offer Scotland an outside chance of reviving their campaign but, as is a matter of record, there can be no slip-up in the first if the manager wishes to remain safely at the helm when England arrive in Glasgow in June.