Scotland’s vital World Cup qualifier against Slovenia looks set to be played in a half empty Hampden Park but Gordon Strachan played down the disappointing ticket sales and said that the nation would be behind his players. The combination of high prices – tickets for the Tartan Army’s favoured North Stand are £40 each – and a poor start to the campaign has dampened the fans’ fervour.
Strachan, however, remained upbeat ahead of a game in which the Scots need a victory to revive their frail chances of qualification for the 2018 finals. “Whether they’re fans in the stadium, players on the pitch, people watching at home, or people who can’t see the game, we’ll have five and a half million Scots wanting us to win tomorrow. That will inspire us,” said the Scotland manager.
“We know everyone wants us to win. Whether you like this striker or that midfielder or that coach, they want Scotland to win, so that’s what you take out there with you and, as long as you appreciate that, you know you’re not on your own.”
The manager has acknowledged that, as their campaign reaches the halfway stage, Scotland have no margin for error. They must beat Slovenia and take a draw at minimum from the visit of England in June.
“There’s a clarity to it when you face something like this,” said Strachan. “There’s no, ‘If we get a draw, there’s this’ and it ends up a good draw. It has to be a win now and it changes everything completely. Whatever comes after that looks after itself but a win changes the landscape.”
Asked about his own prospects if the Scots drew or lost, Strachan said: “I’m the lucky one who gets to lead out a team. I’m the one who’s got to make decisions. I’m good with that. You might think that’s strange but it’s not. I’m oblivious to anything after that.
“Training today was marvellous – the sun was out, there were kids watching us training. You think, ‘Wow, what a wonderful life.’ The only thing that scares me is not getting three points.”
Celtic’s Stuart Armstrong will make his debut, reward for performances that back the claim that he is his club’s most improved player, an accolade supported by his team-mate Leigh Griffiths.
“Stuart has been one of our main players this season,” said the striker. “We missed him when he was out injured for a little bit but he’s come back in, been on fire and showed that he deserves his call-up. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he was in the running for player of the year, because the way he’s transformed his game from the start of the season to now has been fantastic.”
Griffiths has failed to find the net in 10 international appearances. When asked if he had fretted too much about scoring his first Scotland goal, he said: “Aye, every time you’re playing for Scotland you are trying to impress. Maybe I am trying that bit too hard to break my duck. Maybe I just need to relax a bit more, focus on my own game rather than what other people are thinking.”
Meanwhile, on the domestic scene, Neil Lennon’s Hibernian side took a significant stride towards automatic promotion from the Scottish Championship when they beat Falkirk at Easter Road in a game which featured a flurry of late goals. Hibs took the lead in the 75th minute when former Celtic defender Efe Ambrose leapt to connect with a free kick from James Keatings to head home his first goal for the club.
The home crowd’s celebrations were silenced within 90 seconds, however, when they conceded a header to Craig Sibbald, from a pinpoint delivery from Fraser Aird, who scored for Canada at the same venue in the 1-1 friendly draw with Scotland on Wednesday. Keatings, though, secured victory for Hibs when he drove at the Falkirk defence and produced a curling finish into the far corner of the net.
Hibs are now 10 points clear of both Falkirk and Morton – who lost 1-0 at home to Dunfermline – although the Greenock side have a game in hand.
The fourth-placed club, Dundee United, had an afternoon off from league business and used it productively to beat St Mirren 2-1 in the final of the Irn Bru Scottish Challenge Cup at Fir Park.
Tony Andreu opened the scoring with a fine strike, although St Mirren made a game of it when Rory Loy equalised soon afterwards and he also hit the post, but the trophy’s destination was settled when Thomas Mikkelsen, who had replaced Nick van der Velden, met Simon Murray’s cross with a full-blooded header for the winner.