McLeish is sure Scots will not lose way
It was the early hours of Wednesday morning in Tbilisi, the day of Scotland's Euro 2008 qualifier with Georgia, and a small group of journalists was in a taxi wanting to go to a bar for a nightcap. The driver had been given the name of the place, and a map with the bar clearly marked, a short distance from the pick-up place. It should have taken three minutes.
Some 40 minutes later, after diversions via suburbs, side streets, winding climbs, you name it, one of the hacks – a Frenchman, in fact, there to keep an eye on his nation's Group B rivals – tapped the driver on the shoulder. "Look sir," he implored. "Do you know where you are going? Or not?" The driver, with little English, shrugged his shoulders, spread his palms, and – with an insouciance and Eurasian accent that could have come straight from Borat – he said: "Or not."
Fast forward a day, and it's 4.30am yesterday, at the baggage carousel in Glasgow airport. The Scotland team plane from the Caucasus has just landed following Wednesday's 2-0 defeat and their coach, Alex McLeish, is rather surer of his team's destination: Austria and Switzerland next summer, and if not, then it will not be because he and his team did not try their damnedest.
If Scotland beat Italy at Hampden Park on 17 November in their final qualifier, they are through. If they lose, they are out. If they draw, then they will need Ukraine to win at home against France four days later to take them to their first major tournament in a decade.
"We say to the fans, 'Stay behind us and stay positive'," McLeish said. "One poor performance from us [against Georgia] doesn't mean that everybody should start getting on the criticism bandwagon. We've got to be mindful of how far we've come. Nobody gave us a prayer when the draw was made but now we've got a chance of qualifying in the last game. We'd have bitten hands off to get that at the start."
One sign of how far Scotland have come is that McLeish should feel compelled to cite mitigating circumstances for Wednesday's loss. Once upon a time, not very long ago, a Scotland manager could get away with the slightly lame "no easy games in international football, tough place to come, blah, blah, blah."
But Scotland's fine campaign – eight wins, including two against France and one against Ukraine – meant they went to Georgia as favourites. Real mitigation was needed and McLeish had it, primarily through the absence of four absolutely key players who were stellar in one or both of the recent wins against Ukraine and in Paris: Scott Brown, Alan Hutton, Lee McCulloch and Paul Hartley. "No criticism is meant at all of anybody who came in [in Georgia]," McLeish said. "But it definitely hurts us when we lose guys who have been playing for us on a regular basis."
Without dwelling on a poor display, Scotland were flat. Not terrible, just off-key from the start, defensively unsure and increasingly nervy. McLeish also praised Klaus Toppmöller, the experienced German coach who guided Bayer Leverkusen to a Champions League final, for his gamble in picking a side who included three teenagers. If the playmaker Levan Kenia, a junior with Schalke 04 who turned 17 yesterday, continues his rise at this pace, he will be a superstar. Levan Mchedlidze of Empoli is also 17 and scored, while Toppmöller tips the goalkeeper Georgia Makaridze – he is 17 too – for great things, though in truth he had little to do in his first competitive match at senior level. He has not even played for his club, Dynamo Tbilisi.
Georgia, on a hiding to nothing, play with the freedom that brings and their baying support inspired them. The Tartan Army, about 2,000 of them, were in good heart but drowned out. In small foreign stadiums – in Lithuania or the Faroes, for example – they are truly that cliché, the 12th man. So too, in Paris, where they matched the home support. But not in Tbilisi.
A packed Hampden will be different. Italy have never won on Scottish soil. But they have lost just once in nine games against Scotland, and that was in 1965. Yet if McLeish is fortunate, with a full-strength side, Scotland believe they can win. And there is no "or not" about it.
Scotland must beat Italy next month to ensure qualification for next year's tournament. A draw will be enough if France lose their final game in Ukraine.
Remaining fixtures: 17 Nov: Lithuania v Ukraine; Scotland v Italy. 21 Nov: Georgia v Lithuania; Italy v Faroe Is; Ukraine v France.