Alex McLeish expectant of upturn in Scotland fortunes after sticky start

• Scotland have won just one match in previous five
• McLeish: ‘This is where it really begins’

It would be unfair – for now – to draw comparisons between this Scotland setup and Only Fools and Horses. Nonetheless, smiles were inevitable on Sunday as Alex McLeish delved into territory once reserved for Del Boy Trotter. “This time next year …” said the Scotland manager, with a laugh of his own.

The serious matter, and cause for McLeish’s point, relates to a fraught start to his second Scotland tenure. Five friendly matches have passed with just a single Scotland goal and winning total which sits at the same. Monday evening’s visit of Albania to Hampden Park for the start of Scotland’s Nations League campaign carries strong significance in respect of McLeish’s reputation.

“The Russian coach didn’t win in seven games then had a fantastic World Cup finals,” McLeish said. “I take inspiration from things like that. Michael O’Neill won one in 18 at the start with Northern Ireland and he turned out a national hero.” This time next year, indeed.

Scotland’s last outing, the 4-0 loss to Belgium on Friday, didn’t boost external confidence. Less than 20,000 are expected for the Albania tie, meaning we would witness the lowest Hampden crowd for a competitive Scotland match in living memory. Disenchantment with the national team, it must be noted, set in long before McLeish took office in February.

“We’re ready to go again,” he insisted. “This is it for real now. I can feel it already. I woke up on Sunday morning and said to myself: ‘This is where it really begins.’ We have done some experimenting, looking at different players and we have a big roster now should we need to call people up.

“But this is it. The guys have got to bring their best performance level on Monday night.”

Unlike the Scots, Albania have featured in a major tournament recently, but they currently have a lower Fifa ranking (58) than their hosts (40). The team managed by Christian Panucci will inevitably be in good spirits, having seen off Israel on Friday.

“Albania got to the Euro [in 2016] which is something we haven’t done [recently],” McLeish added. “So there is nobody who can disrespect them. The biggest way we can show our respect is to play at our top level and swarm all over them. We also need to try and get a clean sheet.”

McLeish is correct to highlight the need for defensive obduracy. The regimes of his immediate predecessors were commonly undermined by on-field generosity. McLeish has reverted to a back three, largely to accommodate both Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson. That system is here to stay.

“I take examples from other teams and countries,” McLeish said. “There are players around who are flexible enough to play in specific roles. There is no evidence to say that if we’d played 4-4-2 against Belgium we couldn’t have been beaten 5-0.

“If we’d been 4-4-2 and got a doing then people would have been asking if I was thinking about changing the system. I know how it works but I’ve got to persevere. One thing I’ve done throughout my life, in terms of out on the pitch, is that if things aren’t right for me I never give up. I persevere. And I’m going to persevere with this formation.”

McLeish and Panucci have Hampden history. In 2007, McLeish’s Scotland lost a European Championship qualifier to Italy, with Panucci scoring a hotly contested winner after the award of a controversial free-kick. There had also been an unusual pre-game incident.

“A female Italian journalist called me and said: ‘Do you really think Scotland will get to the finals without Italy getting all the 50/50 decisions?’” McLeish recalled. “I said: ‘We don’t talk like that in this country’ and she says: ‘It’s normal to talk like that in Italy.’

“I phoned someone to ask what they thought and he said: ‘That’s just the way they write things over there. They expect the decisions.’”

He added: “I was so incensed by that free-kick decision for Italy at the end that I kept in touch with what happened to the referee. He was supposed to be getting the Champions League semi-finals and he didn’t get them because of that decision. That’s what I was told anyway.”

Scotland (probable, 3-5-2) A McGregor; Souttar, Mulgrew, Tierney; Forrest, McGinn, Armstrong, McDonald, Robertson; C McGregor, Griffiths.


Ewan Murray

The GuardianTramp

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