It wasn't the fast approaching migraines, nor the rock-solid mattress of the Premier Inn that McLaren was staying in until he could get hold of more permanent accomodation. It was the upcoming matches for Scotland that were making any sort of rest impossible for him. Sure, his first match in charge against South Africa was merely a friendly, and one that his team were unlikely to fall apart in, but it was providing plenty of food for thought. And that was an understatement; these thoughts were more like pure caffeine, and just as having too much caffeine before bedtime will disrupt your intended sleep, all these thoughts were making McLaren a nocturnal creature. With Spain his team selections hadn't been that difficult in truth - the big-money players were an easy choice in his starting 11 while the wannabes would get their chance on the bench, if they were lucky - but with Scotland he had a team almost entirely made up of players divided into groups by their positions, and each with different talents and teams. He knew that if he picked this guy over that guy or the kid over the veteran then he would face enormous amounts of ridicule from the press and fans, no matter how right he ended up being in his call. He wasn't even certain what formation he would use, and whether it would work; for too long to remember he had heavily relied on his trusty 4-2-3-1, and with a squad so fantastic as Spain's, they barely needed a match to get used to it. But with Scotland he didn't even have enough good attacking midfielders, arguably the most infuential role in the team. Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Reminiscent Sleepless Nights
All this pondering was driving McLaren into an endless spiral of insanity. He turned back on the bedside light of his hotel room and, while his eyes adjusted, fumbled around for his phone. 04:53 it read.
"Ah f*ck it," he mumbled to himself as he popped one of the sleeping pills he'd been hiding under his pillow.
Barely three hours later and his personal hotel wake-up-call was pleading with his eyes to open up. It was match day, and Robert's services were required down at Hampden Park. The South Africa match was closing in, and although he can admit to nodding off multiple times at his desk during the day, McLaren had never been so focused during training that afternoon. He knew who he had to choose from, with his final 23-man squad already selected, but he remained clueless as to who would start the game, let alone what formation he would play them in. His first-choice 'keeper Adamson was out injured, and so McLaren was left with a selection of 3 shot-stoppers, with enough top-level experience between them to fit on one finger. So for the remainder of the training session, McLaren didn't just monitor the players, he analysed their every move, furiously note taking once more and occasionally mumbling some football-talk to Eric Black, stood beside him. Come half past 7, McLaren planned to be prepared. Very prepared.
For a brief period of time, he snuck away from the small training camp they had managed to set up at the Little Hampden pitch next door, and made his way into the real thing. Hampden Park was almost deserted right now, with only a couple of TV-people setting up the hawk-eye cameras and the odd press reporter hunting for material for their live updates. They were all so focused on their work that you could easily have waltzed in unnoticed and picked out your complimentary seat. This was perfect for McLaren; he headed over to the home dugout, picked out his seat and for just one minute, he soaked it all in. He embraced the challenge, this was what he'd been dreaming of his entire life, just to sit in this dugout of this stadium to watch this country's team play some football. In just a couple of hours, Hampden would be nearing capacity and McLaren would at long last get his chance to watch Scotland do exactly that. And he could hardly wait.
Back in the training ground, Black immediately confronted McLaren. "Where the hell did you go? We're heading off in 10 minutes, come on," he said.
"Toilet," replied McLaren through a lasting smile.
International Friendly Match
Wednesday, 10 August 2022. Kick Off 19:30
Scotland 0-0 South Africa
SCOTLAND (4-3-3): Tam Wilson, Mark Brown, Neil Oliver, Murray Wallace, Graham Robertson (Lee Gibson 59), [C]Liam Bridcutt (Tom Cairney 75), Alan Ward, Fraser Fyvie, Matt Phillips (Matthew Kennedy 59), Scott Kelly (Leigh Jack 75), Jordan Rhodes (Tony Watt 59).
SOUTH AFRICA (4-4-2): Marc Tinkler, Dion Mkhwanazi (Lucky Baloyi 56), Tebogo Mokoena, Sakhile Ngobe, Siviwe Mpengesi, Kamohelo Mokotjo (Siyanda Xulu 65), Papi Ngobese, [C]Andile Jali, Mandla Mokoena (Tokelo Rantie 45), Paulo Dlamini (Thulani Serero 45), Reuben Lichaba (Dino Ndlovu 56 (Khaya Ntombela 59)).
Scotland Team News: With first-choice goalkeeper Adamson out with an injury, inexperienced Tam Wilson of Derby came in for his international debut. Lee Gibson was rested, with Graham Robertson of Wigan coming in at left back in his place, while Alan Ward started over Tom Cairney in midfield. Wingers Matthew Kennedy and Scott Kennedy were both handed their international debuts in this match, the former via the bench.
Match Report: In a dull but promising start to McLaren and Black's Scotland career, Scotland were able to shake off their recent losing streak to battle to a draw with 2010 World Cup hosts South Africa. The best chance of the match fell to the away side, 10 minutes from time, but after some neat passing play, substitute Tokelo Rantie's shot from Khaya Ntombela's cross was well saved by Tam Wilson. Scotland were able to hold on for the remainder of the match however and claimed a goalless draw.
International Friendly Match
Friday, September 2 2022. Kick off 19:30
Scotland 3-1 Slovenia
SCOTLAND (4-3-3): Harry Irvine, [C]Lee Gibson (Mark Brown 66), Neil Oliver, Danny Wilson (Ross Hunter 84), John Fulton, Alan Ward, James Hay, Tom Cairney (Fraser Fyvie 66), Matthew Kennedy (David Maclennan 66), Joshua Turner (Ryan Liddell 66), Tony Watt (Nicky Elrick 76).
SLOVENIA (3-4-2-1): Jan Oblak, Matevz Bengez, [C]Mirsad Grbic, Jernej Kirbis (Boban Jovic 66), Vedran Vinko (Martin Milec 61), Vasja Kolman (Klemen Ribic 66), Aleksandar Vinko (Kris Jogan 66), Nik Omladic, Kevin Kampl, Jure Kovac (Peter Lebar 63), Robert Beric (Dejan Lazarevic 66).
Scotland Team News: Despite the return to fitness of Graham Adamson, Ipswich Town goalkeeper Harry Irvine is handed his international debut. Lee Gibson captains the side in the absence of Liam Bridcutt, while McLaren opts to give Matthew Kennedy his full debut in place of Matt Phillips. QPR's Ryan Liddell also makes his first appearance in the match, from the bench, and Tony Watt is handed a start over Jordan Rhodes in attack.
Match Report: After an eventless first half dominated by Scotland, the match kicked into life after half time, with Tony Watt scoring a rebound from Joshua Turner's shot to hand Scotland the lead. 6 minutes later, James Hay wins the ball in his own half to begin a counter attack, from which Matthew Kennedy assisted Hay to score from a tight angle for 2-0. Scotland were well and truly in the driving seat now, and Kennedy turned goalscorer after some clever unselfish play from Tony Watt to get his first ever international goal. In the 74th minute Danny Wilson fouled Lazarevic in the box to give Slovenia a penalty and a chance to get back into the match, and Nik Omladic calmly slotted home to drag Slovenia back to within 2 goals of their opponents. It proved to be merely a consolation, however, as Scotland retained possession well to seal a 3-1 win, the first in McLaren's tenure as Scotland manager.
And so, with two friendly games down and many more competetive matches to go, McLaren was able to reflect upon two promising showings from his inexperienced side, but now the real matches were about to begin. Scotland had been drawn in Group D of the European Championship 2024 Qualifiers, alongside Kazakhstan, Armenia, Wales and the heavy favourites Italy. Although he was dreading playing against his former employers Italy, McLaren genuinely believed that his new team could finish 2nd and salvage a play-off berth. The games against the Eastern European sides should be relatively easy however and the so-called "Battle of Britain" clashes with Wales potentially had much to offer. First test: the Kazakhs away from home. Pfffttt!
UEFA European Championship Qualifying - Group D
Tuesday, September 6 2022. Kick Off 19:30
Kazakhstan 0-2 Scotland
KAZAKHSTAN (5-3-2): Alexandr Malyshev, Konstantin Engel, Ruslan Pak, Sapar Zhuravlev, Baglan Mischenko, Zaurbek Pliev (Arman Chausov 81), Jambyl Kukeev, Willi Evseev, [C]Kazbek Geteriev (Marlen Khalilin 81), Andrey Kinjaliev, Yury Abdrakhmanov (Jaslan Duzbaev 61).
SCOTLAND (4-3-3): Graham Adamson, Lee Gibson, Neil Oliver, Murray Wallace, John Fulton, [C]Liam Bridcutt, James Hay (Fraser Fyvie 75), Rhys McCabe, Matt Phillips (David Maclennan 75), Tony Watt (Ryan Liddell 63), Jordan Rhodes.
Scotland Team News: Graham Adamson finally returns for Scotland and becomes McLaren's 3rd starting goalkeeper in 3 matches. Several other players return, having been rested for the friendly against Slovenia, while Rhys McCabe comes into the Scotland midfield. Tony Watt is moved to left wing to allow room for Jordan Rhodes to start up front - the first time the pair have started alongside each other during McLaren's tenure.
Match Report: In a match fully controlled by the Scots, the game was settled before half time. Soon after Tony Watt's header struck the bar, Watt turned provider for Jordan Rhodes to score an easy finish for 1-0. Then, in the 35th minute, Matt Phillips played a simple lay-off for James Hay that allowed the central midfielder to score his second goal in as many matches for his country, beating the goalkeeper at his near post. Late in the game, substitute Liddell missed the chance to put the icing on the cake, as his long-range effort grazed the roof of the net, with the goalkeeper stranded. Scotland remained solid to win 2-0.
McLaren could relax, his favoured team had beaten off the challenge of the underdogs and they had their first three points on the board. But with another three matches to come up before the new year, there, unfortunately enough for him, was still much to think about. More sleepless nights were on the way.