THE last competitive Scotland match Alex McLeish took charge of away from home is one that he, along with every supporter, would much rather forget.
The wretched 2-0 defeat the national team suffered to Georgia in Tbilisi back 2007 dealt a savage blow to their hopes of reaching the Euro 2008 finals. A loss to Italy at Hampden the following month ended their chances of reaching Austria and Switzerland.
McLeish, though, can still remember an important lesson from that night. Namely, not to stick too rigidly to a formation or rely too muc on the same group of players even if they have both been successful previously because each game, particularly on the road, presents an entirely different set of challenges.
Now older and wiser, it is likely he will tweak the formation that ensured the national team won their opening Nations League game against Albania 2-0 at Hampden last month against Israel here this evening and deploy different personnel.
That may see James Forrest, the Celtic winger who was not involved in either the friendly against Belgium or the Albania fixture but who netted four goals against St Johnstone on Sunday, called upon by his country.
“What I learned from that one is that I should have changed the system,” he said. “I went with the same one that was successful for us three days earlier at Hampden against Ukraine (Scotland won 3-1). We were outnumbered a bit in midfield. If I could take things back, I’d have played three in the middle.”
McLeish felt there was no place for Forrest, who was a perennial favourite of his predecessor Gordon Strachan, in his starting line-up last time around. He fielded a three man defence and two wing backs in both games and the wide man didn’t even come off the bench. But he may find it hard to ignore him after his heroics in Perth.
“It’s great James scored four goals,” he said. “We want players in top form coming to the international team. He turned up on Monday cock-a-hoop and his confidence must be sky high. That gives us food for thought.
“We need to find the right system for the players who excel in their positions, as James did last Sunday. That doesn’t necessarily mean we play five in midfield all of the time. We can go 3-4-3 and that gives us cope with the very good wingers we have. I think we have to be flexible.
“Look at the World Cup, Russia played four most of the time and changed to a three, or realistically it was a five, at the back. We need to be prepared tactically and we have to be prepared to suit certain individuals. With every change, it affects another player. It’s horses for courses.”
The decision by Leigh Griffiths, another to be left out of the side against Albania, to withdraw from the Scotland squad for this double header in order to work on his fitness has dominated the build-up to the Israel and Portugal matches.
However, Forrest has reacted differently to his omission and McLeish is pleased by his response. “When I was out of the team I was always disappointed, as you should be, but the gauntlet was thrown down,” he said. “That was the motivation.
“I spoke with James very briefly after the Albania game and I could see he was upset and desperate to play. I can’t ask for more than that. It’s hard to guarantee anyone a game.
“But that’s probably one of my strengths and, going forward, I will speak to players. In my younger days, the one thing Alex Ferguson always did was take you in and tell you to your face.
“I can’t speak for every manager in the modern game, I’m not sure everyone speaks to players. They maybe just put the team up and accept that’s what it is. You have to get used to individual managers.
“Collectively, you can say it. You can say: ‘Look guys, I can’t play everyone’. But we’re really delighted with the boys who are committed to come in and sometimes they won’t play, but one day they will.”
The Scotland manager knows that for his team to qualify for the finals of major tournaments they, too, have to learn how to win away from home. A win tonight would go a long way towards securing the Euro 2020 play-off spot that is available to the winners of League C Group 1.
“There has always been a mental thing when you go away from home,” said McLeish. “I can remember with the Aberdeen team we had growing up and finally winning at Celtic Park, finally winning at Ibrox. There was a very long time when we just couldn’t win. A lot of it was down to mentality.
“We had a good result in the first one. We don’t go into this game thinking it is going to be easy. We have to give the opposition respect and the way we do that is by being at our top level performance wise.
“It’s hard to out your finger on it and say why it’s hard to go away from home. There’s a re-action for the home team as well. For example, Israel will be a different team from what they were, say, in Belfast (they lost 3-0 to Northern Ireland in a friendly last month).
“But I do think that there’s tremendous confidence within the squad that we have. One or two haven’t been playing recently, but, by and large, there is a lot of good form out there and in this squad.”