If it seems extreme to be in the territory of must-win matches within seven months of an international managerial appointment, Alex McLeish has become accustomed to such a harsh reality.
A significant chunk of Scotland’s fanbase were unimpressed by the SFA affording McLeish a second tenure after failure to prise Michael O’Neill from Northern Ireland. Five friendly matches, returning a single win and goal scored, have not lightened the mood.
Belgium’s 4-0 friendly success at Hampden Park on Friday raised the discord level once more, with Albania’s visit in the Nations League on Monday carrying huge significance even beyond the basic fact it begins a possible journey towards Euro 2020.
“I can’t sit here and say we don’t need to win and it’s still experimentation time,” said McLeish. “We want to win and we must win. If we draw or lose, then that is a bad start. It doesn’t mean you can’t rescue it but we want to get off to a flyer at Hampden on Monday night.”
The backdrop is unlikely to assist the Scots. Around 20,000 are expected to attend the fixture in the latest nod towards apathy that has attached itself to the Scotland scene. That is not all McLeish’s doing, given 20 years have passed since Scotland featured at a major tournament, but he knows only too well about external scepticism.
“There is a perception of: ‘Ach, we’ll not do it,’ or: ‘They’re not going to do it, again,’” McLeish said. “The determination is to change that perception and the only way we are going to change it is by getting victories. It has evolved into that [negativity].
“The only thing that can change it is us. The players understand we have got to win this game and they are all up for it. It is a chance to do something and get under way with all guns blazing.”
For all their glaring superiority, three of Belgium’s goals arrived after Scottish mistakes when in possession. Despite that, McLeish has no desire to implement a more direct style of play. “At times if you won’t make the pass you are going to be vulnerable but we have to encourage the guys, with the skills that they have, to pass the ball,” he said. “I don’t want tippy-tappy football, I want to see us get forward.
“We don’t want to park the bus on the edge of the box for 90 minutes. We want to try to play, we want to try to play out. We are still a work in progress in that, we did it in training when there was no pressure and last night the Belgians were positioned exactly as we saw in the videos we showed the players. They played out in training, no problem. But when it comes to: ‘Wait a minute, that’s an international superstar I’m up against and he might dispossess me …’ It’s about the confidence and empowering themselves to know they can do it. And they can do it. On the night there was a couple of mistakes normally you wouldn’t see. Lessons learned.”
Albania will arrive in Glasgow in upbeat mood, after beginning their Nations League campaign with a 1-0 win over Israel as the Scots were chasing Belgian shadows.
McLeish confirmed Allan McGregor will replace Craig Gordon as goalkeeper. McGregor has enjoyed an excellent start to the season with Rangers. “It is hard for me to separate these guys,” said McLeish.