By Brian P. Dunleavy
No, Gordon Strachan’s Scotland squad are not the spitting image (see what we did there?) of Brazil circa, say, 1970 or even the Argentines of 1978; however, thanks to two much-needed victories over the past week, they are still in the hunt for a bid to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, which is saying something, given the pessimism of the summer months.
As has been the case of late, Strachan’s side featured six Celts—starting with Craig Gordon in goal; Kieran Tierney on the back line; a midfield three of Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong and James Forrest; and Leigh Griffiths up top—and a former Hoops stalwart in Charlie Mulgrew, who is now plying his trade with Blackburn Rovers. Sure, there’s no Pele in the bunch, but there was enough talent and will to win in the team to earn the full six points against the Maltese Hawk(er)s—try the meatloaf!—and Lithuania.
And, the role of the Celtic players in the squad is obvious. Griffiths netted the all-important second goal early in the second half against Malta, whose captain, Steve Borg, allegedly spit at Brown (hence all the sophomoric saliva humor), while Armstrong got the first (and match-winner) against Lithuania, which, as far as we know, kept their bodily fluids under control. The Scots are now tied for third on points with Slovenia in the UEFA Group F table, but officially sit fourth on goal differential.
Big deal, you say? Go, uh, spit in the wind. It’s not long ago that qualifying out of Group F, which of course also features the “auld enemy” England, seemed like a pipe dream. It may still be, but at least it’s no longer laughable.
It would be simplistic—and, frankly, trite—for us to say that the turnaround in fortunes has been down to the inclusion of the Celtic players, all of whom have played key roles in Brendan Rodgers’ “Invincibles” squad, which still hasn’t lost a domestic match under the Irishman’s watch. Of course, it has a lot more to do with the opposition during this round, as Lithuania and Malta are hardly giants.
However, it certainly can be said that the Celts know how to win, and that Scotland could, in fact, benefit from the inclusion of another Hoops player—namely, Callum McGregor—during the next round of qualifiers in October against Slovakia and Slovenia. These are matches, obviously, that Scotland needs to win, and they are, in fact, winnable for them, with a green-tinged squad or not.
Meanwhile, another international manager familiar to Celtic supporters, Martin O’Neill, has his Ireland squad flirting with qualification for Russia, thanks at least in some small part to a Hoops influence. But, to further disprove the point about the possible impact of the “Invincibles,” results have been mixed. Former Celts Aiden McGeady and Daryl Murphy both came on as substitutes in the Republic’s 1-1 draw at Georgia and Murphy came on late in their disappointing home loss to Serbia (while McGeady wasn’t even in the squad). However, the only “Invincible” is current Hoop Jonny Hayes, who was on the bench for both matches.
Ireland still sits second in the Group D table, but Wales is nipping at its collective heels. Personnel may be the issue for O’Neill. Losing at home, to Serbia, despite being a man up for the last 20-plus minutes is not a good sign that the players in the squad have the necessary fortitude—and scoring touch—to win.
Perhaps O’Neill could campaign for more players to plays to their club football in Glasgow’s East End. Then again, he’s a bit more, well, phlegmatic than we are.