Scotland v Wales: 'Gordon Strachan has made players better – we must repay him,' says Gary Caldwell
Defender relishing fresh start for Scotland under new reign and can see end to wilderness years
On Monday night Gordon Strachan was sitting with his coaches talking football. It was half-past 10 at night. Escaping the game has been impossible since he became the new manager of Scotland. It has cranked up a further notch in the past 10 days.
Scotland play their first competitive game under a new managerial reign. The national side needs a lift. They are bottom of Group A. The match has extra significance because it is against Wales. Strachan, Mark McGhee, Stuart McCall know it but Strachan felt he had to call time on the conversation and order his staff to bed.
Tomorrow night, the talking stops for real. It is 15 years since Scotland last qualified for a major tournament, the World Cup in France. A generation of players have come and gone in that time. Strachan is the sixth permanent manager since that competition. He has spoken repeatedly of trust, but creating that with the Scottish public will be one of his biggest tasks. The spiral of decline began with Berti Vogts – an ill-conceived reign from which Scotland have stumbled, largely blindly, to their present outpost as the 66th team in Fifa's rankings.
The blueprint to change the very structure of Scottish football, led by the Scottish Premier League chief executive, Neil Doncaster, and Scottish Football League chief executive, David Longmuir, is under serious threat. The planned restructure would offer three divisions of 12, 12 and 18, with the SPL to be split.
Amid continued failure and such uncertainty comes the need for Strachan to offer a new dawn. Nine of the squad he has chosen to face Wales play in the Championship. The length of conversation with his staff is to find a way through such limitations. His first game offered a positive start. Scotland beat Estonia at Pittodrie. Strachan used Shaun Maloney, Chris Burke and Steven Naismith as support to a lone striker, Steven Fletcher. Three of those four are English Premier League players. Half of the outfield in the starting IX are likely to be from England's top league. Strachan has to be the fulcrum at the centre of this and Gary Caldwell, who was signed by the Scotland manager when he was in charge at Celtic Park, has spoken of a galvanising effect since he succeeded Craig Levein.
"It feels like a fresh beginning," Caldwell said. "A new manager has come in. We're four games into the campaign but it feels like a fresh start. The new manager makes players better. He demands the very best that you can give him.
"He has been on the training pitch working with the team, telling us how we are going to play and working with individuals. When you go out onto the park, you want to do well for him because he gives you so much during the week. You want to repay him with a performance on the park."
Caldwell is 30 years old now. He has more than half a century of caps for his country, but there has not been a major championship amongst them. Next year's World Cup seems similarly unattainable. There is a desperate need for a spark.
"It's massive," the Wigan defender added. "Scottish football is probably at an all-time low, just in the leagues and with the national team not doing very well. It is important we do well and get the fans back onside and get them behind us again. We have got good players. For whatever reason we have not quite done it in the past.
"We really need to get Scotland back at a major final, for the whole country. Getting to 50 caps was a big milestone. It is something I was really proud of, but not having a major finals in there makes you feel you haven't done great at that level. I've achieved my own personal milestone but I want to be part of a team that achieves and reaches a major tournament.
"It has been a tough start to the group. We are bottom. We want to try and win on Friday night and see where that takes us. There is still a chance of qualifying, albeit a very slim one. We want to win games and get confidence. Who knows where that can take you?"
It starts with Wales at Hampden Park.
Caldwell predicted: "The manager will get the players right up for it. He will have done his work in terms of tactical preparation during the week so people know their jobs. He will make sure the players have the right attitude and play as well as we can.
"He has had a big impact on my career. I was at Hibs. He gave me my big break, taking me to a massive club in Celtic, getting me to play Champions League football. He made me the player I am today, he gave me the belief. He took my game to the next level."
Now Strachan must do the same for a nation.
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