SCOTLAND’S much-maligned post-season tour of the Americas ended in the early hours of Sunday morning with a 1-0 defeat in the Azteca Stadium to Mexico. Along with a 2-0 defeat in Peru it has been an incredibly difficult trip for the players on the pitch and the management team off it.
We have pitted our wits against two really good sides seriously fired up in front of their own fans with the World Cup just days away and places in the team up for grabs. The sides are ranked No.11 and No.15 in the World respectively, so we have certainly not been embarrassed with what is effectively our B – or even C – squad. If we had gone out there with our strongest possible side available I doubt if we could have bettered the results we gained, so credit I think must go to a patchwork team who have busted a gut and showed real determination to dig in and be competitive.
We were well organised defensively in both games and showed a tremendous team spirit and togetherness in difficult circumstances, which for me augurs well for the future when we have our full squad back in place.
The teams in the Nations League will not be anywhere near the calibre of Peru and Mexico. Yes, we could have shown more offensively in both games, but we are missing a lot of quality and pace in attack with the likes of Leigh Griffiths and James Forrest to return and go and hurt teams on the counter attack when we nick the ball back. With Oliver Burke doing so well in Toulon for the Under-21 side, all of their pace and power could give us a huge boost going forward when the real action starts.
So what have we gained from this trip? The critics will no doubt point to two pretty comprehensive defeats which accounts to not a lot, and I understand that; but the experience that the players will have garnered from this trip on and off the park will be invaluable going forward.
Going up against quality players in packed stadiums shows you the standard that you need to aspire to. Both teams pressed Scotland high and didn’t give them a second on the ball. You need to shift the ball quicker at that level and pose a threat on the counter attack and these are all aspects that the players and staff will have picked up on and learned.
Yes, it was a very inexperienced team – particularly in the Mexico game where for the very first time we fielded a team in which all 10 outfield players were born in the 1990s – but the only way to gain experience is to play.
I am great believer in having a look at players in these types of games, otherwise what is the point? You will never find out if someone is good enough sitting on the bench or in the stand. Guys like Stephen O’Donnell and Dylan McGeouch have performed with credit over the past couple of games to perhaps plant a seed in the manager's head for the upcoming qualifiers. That for me is what these games should be used for.
Off the park, relationships will have developed and a camaraderie and team spirit will have been forged. Alex McLeish has always been big on that side of things and it is really important if you have a squad with limited ability at international level that guys are willing to put in the extra graft for themselves and their team-mates. Some of the guys on the trip may never be seen again in a Scotland shirt again so that shows the amount of players we had missing.
That’s not even taking into account the time differences in altitude that both games have been played in. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to adjust and play at high altitude. When I moved to Colorado Rapids in 2008 I was halfway through the season at Dunfermline and in great physical condition. The players at Colorado were effectively in pre-season when I arrived, so in theory I should have been fitter. But the Rapids played in Denver, which is a mile above sea level. It took me around three-to-four weeks to adjust to the altitude and, in actual fact, I was laid out flat in my bed for three days after my first training session with altitude sickness. It felt like there wasn’t a breath of air and I couldn’t recover from any physical work quickly. The ball flew further and faster and it was just completely different. My lips and mouth were bone dry due to the air density and I had to drink stacks of water to avoid getting dehydrated. Once I had adjusted I was flying and could run all day when we played at sea level against other teams, but that just highlights some of the problems and difficulties the Scottish lads would have had physically in both games with just under a week to prepare.
We have another tough friendly against Belgium to come before a huge double header against Israel and then Albania in the Nations League. By then, McLeish will have his team settled and ready to go. That is when he will ultimately be judged. That is when we need to win. And the time for experimenting will be gone.
AND ANOTHER THING . . .
Scottish football lost a couple of real characters in Neale Cooper and John Ritchie this last week. Big "Tattie" I didn’t know that well but the outpouring of grief and some of the stories about him show you the regard he was held in by so many. JR, or "The Cat", as he liked to be known, was a brilliant character with a wicked sense of humour who I knew well from my time at Hibs. Both will be sadly missed.