GORDON Strachan last night denied that Scotland’s failure to secure a Russia 2018 play-off place was “rock bottom” and insisted there are reasons to be optimistic ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
The national team’s players and supporters were left distraught on Sunday evening after they drew 2-2 with Slovenia in their final Group F match in the Stozice Stadium in Ljubljana and were edged out of second place.
Slovakia, who defeated Malta 3-0 in their last game in Trnava on Sunday, finished runners-up in the section on goal difference and it is they, not Scotland, who will go into the play-off draw in Zurich a week today.
It was a desperately disappointing end to a campaign which saw Strachan’s men win 14 out of a possible 18 points in their final six fixtures thanks to wins over Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta and Slovakia and draws with England and Slovenia.
The 60-year-old, whose side finished fourth in their Euro 2016 qualifying group to miss out on a play-off place, declined to discuss his own future and stressed he would take time to consider his future over the coming days.
But the former Coventry City, Southampton, Celtic and Middlesbrough manager, who was only contracted until the end of the Russia 2018 campaign, stressed he had experienced worse moments in the game and lavished praise on the players who had taken the country so close to qualifying for their first major finals since France ’98.
“We all know it isn’t rock bottom,” he said. “I remember playing against Uruguay (in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico). It was 0-0. I’m not saying we didn’t try, but there wasn’t that kind of effort to it. We went home saying: ‘That’s it, we’re out’. I think this is a lot different.
“Sometimes you come away from games and think: ‘What do I do?’ You can’t see anything, there is nothing in the game. The guys must be feeling incredibly low and I think they should be allowed to feel that way for the work they have put in over the last year.
“Me? No, it’s not like that at all. Sometimes you come away as a manager, and I’ve been there, thinking ‘Where do we go from here? What do we do?’ Far from it. If you look at the guys who didn’t get playing tonight (first team regulars Stuart Armstrong, Scott Brown and James Morrison all missed out due to injury), what happened and how we went about it.
“The first half against Slovenia wasn’t a real problem, no moments where you thought ‘We got away with that’. It was only after the first goal went in that we had a few moments, but they picked themselves up again. I don’t know where they got it from but they went again.
“We could have scored a winner with a couple of minutes to go. We have finished the campaign losing out on goal difference to a very good side, scoring two goals here against a team nobody had scored against them. We could have scored more. So it isn’t that blank moment that I’ve had a few times in my career.
“I’m 60 years old. I’ve been to places that are a lot lower than this. Pride in the lads is numbing any real disappointment. There is definitely something there. Over the last year, absolutely.
“The players, when they think about it and look back, should regard it as a great experience because they know where they can go now, they know they where they can push themselves to.”
When it was suggested that he is still relatively young for a football manager, he said: Compared to some, yes. I feel fine, I feel fit.
“I speak to Alex Smith (the former Aberdeen manager who spent a brief spell as Falkirk caretaker manager at the age of 77 last month) a lot actually. Do you think I’m going to do this for another 17 years?”