You turned up late with a hangover and you still beat Iran, great going.
He was now 6 games into his Scotland managerial career, but still McLaren had yet to face a properly tough challenge. 5 of his 6 games in charge so far had been at Hampden, and even the away game was against lowly Kazakhstan. Without knowing it, he had already gone through half a year as Scotland boss, and in truth the months had flashed by without a trace. He had dedicated so much time to match preparation and settling in to a different country that he had barely spent any time just relaxing, doing nothing in other words. And so once the sleepless nights were out of the equation, the first 6 months had been nice and easy, hell, his team hadn't even lost or conceded a goal from open play yet. The next few games however would be a lot different.
The First Real Test
Given that his team had barely strolled a foot from the home turf on more than one occasion, and they still had tough away qualifiers to come, McLaren had gone out of his way to arrange the first away friendly of his tenure. Usually he would either wait until an offer from another team came in with an offer for a friendly or simply let his backroom staff arrange them, but this time McLaren was determined to give his side their first major challenge. Poland were an extremly young team near the Scots in the world rankings, and despite the international retirement of Arsenal hitman Robert Lewandowski, a player still firing in bucketloads of goals in the Premier League as his contract expiry draws near, they still boasted a very impressive team. If anything, they were underperforming considering the players they had at their disposal, but this wasn't anything of a consolation for McLaren. He wasn't at all confident going into the match, but at least they could enjoy a mini-holiday for their troubles.
The break wasn't going to last long however, as after the Poland game came perhaps the toughest test many of McLaren's players would ever meet. Italy were the big-guns of the Euro qualifying group, and almost everyone, pro-Italy or not, expected them to win it. The difference between the two teams couldn't be higher, and as Scotland were sweating over the prospect of playing against a whole host of superstars, the Italians must have been expecting a walkover - so much so that they scheduled the game at the little-known Stadio San Fillipo, which would provide just a fraction of the crowd and little excitement compared to the Juventus Stadium or the San Siro. This was a bit of a let-down for a lot of the Scottish players, some of whom had waited their whole lives to play on such a world-renowed stage, only to be dropped into a small, run-down stadium with a miniscule crowd. Robert could only hope that this wouldn't be a distraction and they could still focus on the game, despite the huge disappointment.
Before them two tests was a different kind of match, and on paper the first Scotland game of 2023 didn't seem like much. It was a Nations Cup (a tournament involving all the teams of the British Isles, with the exception of England who obviously considered themselves above it) match against "lowly" Northern Ireland. At first McLaren didn't fret too much about this, he had simply assumed that Northern Ireland had a very poor team and, frankly, it was surprising that the tournament was even still running to him, however there was a lot more too it than that. The fans were the first thing that added extra pressure, after all this was a tournament, and in any kind of cup the supporters will demand a good performance. Furthermore, Northern Ireland's current squad was actually surprisingly good; the last time McLaren remembered watching them, the likes of Kyle Lafferty and Gareth McAuley were among their key players - not exactly world class. Since then however, things had clearly changed, and now they could rely upon players like AS Monaco's Ryan McLaughlin and Tottenham's young and talented striker Steven Black on their books. Whether they were better than Scotland was still very debatable, but McLaren wasn't expecting a walkover as he had first predicted in this one...
Carling Nations Cup
Tuesday, February 7 2023. Kick Off 19:30
Northern Ireland 0-0 Scotland
NORTHERN IRELAND (4-4-2): Dougie O'Hara, Ryan McLaughlin, Adam Thompson, George Trainor, Andy Hagan (Lee Hodson 80), Martin Armstrong (Jordan Jones 75), Oliver Norwood, Kieran Davidson, David Crammond ([C]Rodney Donaldson 45), Rory Donnelly, Steven Black.
SCOTLAND (4-3-3): Graham Adamson, [C]Lee Gibson, Neil Oliver, Murray Wallace, John Fulton, James Hay (Nicky Elrick 76), Fraser Fyvie, Tom Cairney, James Hill, Joshua Turner (Scott Kelly 57), David Maclennan (Steven Fletcher 57).
Scotland Team News: A familar defence and midfield are accompanied by a rotated Scotland attack, with new Bristol City signing James Hill, Joshua Turner and David MacLennan forming the attacking trio.
Match Report: Scotland had the best of the first half, and from Lee Gibson's corner, Lee Wallace's close-range header crashed back off the post and to safety. Northern Ireland camr back out for the second half with a new lease of life, and could have won the game right at the death when Rory Donnelly flicked on a header, agonisingly missing the target by mere inches. The match however finished scoreless.
International Friendly Match
Saturday, March 18 2023. Kick Off 15:00
Poland 0-1 Scotland
POLAND (4-4-2): Wojcech Szczesny, Tomasz Michalski (Filip Modelski 85), Bartosz Salamon, Adam Wojcik (Witold Suda 57), Krysztof Pekala (Arkadiusz Giza 73), Mateusz Mozdzen, Dominik Olszak (Pawel Zak 73), Kazimierz Wesolowski (Marcin Piwowarczyk 73), Michal Zyro, Igor Zewlakow, [C]Michal Kaminski.
SCOTLAND (4-3-3): Ian Scullion, Ross Hunter (Mark Brown 74), Grant Hanley, Murray Wallace, John Fulton, [C]Liam Bridcutt (Tom Cairney 74), James Hay (Joshua Turner 57), Fraser Fyvie, Matt Phillips (Matthew Kennedy 74), Scott Kelly (Tony Watt 74), Nicky Elrick (David MacLennan 57).
Scotland Team News: Before the crunch match with Italy, Scotland play an irregular team for the friendly against Poland. Ian Scullion of Fulham starts in goal, while Ross Hunter and Grant Hanley come into defence. Nicky Elrick earns a rare start up front, with Tony Watt and Jordan Rhodes both being rested.
Match Report: Scotland claim an impressive victory from a strong Poland side, after Leeds striker Nicky Elrick scores the only goal of the game on the counter attack. Ross Hunter's clearance led to several successful passes in a row, and with Poland still tracking back, Matt Phillips crossed towards the penalty spot, allowing Elrick to sweep the ball home. The goal came largely against the run of play however, and the normally-clinical Michal Kaminski really should have levelled things up on 7 minutes, only managing to hit the crossbar with his close-range header. The second half was much a similar tale, and Poland's frustration shone through 6 minutes from time when Ian Scullion brilliantly saved from Piwowarczyk. The away team ran out 1-0 victors.
UEFA European Championship Qualifying - Group D
Friday, March 24 2023. Kick Off 19:30
Italy 2-1 Scotland
ITALY (4-5-1): [C]Roberto Michele Mameli, Mattia De Sciglio, Marcello Ceripa, Daniele Rugani (Elias Fabris 79), Domenico De Maio, Vitale Montefusco, Omar Iori (Nicolo Garavaglia 66), Marco Santoni, Stephan El Shaarawy, Giampaolo Silveri, Thomas Cremonini (Manolo Gabbiadini 79).
SCOTLAND (4-3-3): Graham Adamson, Lee Gibson, Neil Oliver, Murray Wallace, John Fulton, [C]Liam Bridcutt (Barry Bannan 53), James Hay (Joshua Turner 71), Tom Cairney, Matt Phillips, Matthew Kennedy (Tony Watt 53), Jordan Rhodes.
Scotland Team News: Scotland gaffer Robert McLaren names a familar Scotland team for this match, with Matthew Kennedy's start ahead of Tony Watt the only real surprise. Veteran Barry Bannan returns to the Scotland team for the first time in over a year and merits a place on the bench.
Match Report: A battling Scotland fell to a narrow defeat to an unstoppable Italy side, but despite being in control the match could have been so different for the Italians had Matt Phillips' header from a Matthew Kennedy left-sided cross not come back off the bar. Nevertheless, moments later it was 1-0 to the home side, as Vitale Montefusco played a pinpoint ball through to Marco Santoni, who calmly dispatched his shot at the near post. Scotland 'keeper Adamson made several outstanding saves for the remainder of the first half as the Scots desperately tried to control the deficit. However, early in the second half Santoni supplied Stephan El Shaarawy to just bundle the ball over the line for a second goal. The outstanding El Shaarawy later hit the post, before Scotland gave themselves some hope. 15 minutes from time a mazy run from substitute Tony Watt found fellow sub Joshua Turner, who clawed Scotland back into the game with an easy finish. Despite the goal back, italy continued to devastate the Scottish defenders, and only another superb Adamson save denied them a third late on. Scotland were brave but undoubtedly deserved nothing from the game.
McLaren was shocked, to say the least. In what should have been the easiest game of the three, his team only managed a draw against the Northern Irish, although Wales' 0-0 draw with Ireland (Really displaying the quality of that tournament as a whole) would keep his team in with a chance of winning the Nations Cup and keep the fans off his back...for now. Then, to everyone's surprise his back-up team had gone to Poland and beaten them, also keeping a clean sheet. This left him exstatic; even though he arranged the match he could never have expected them to win, and it gave them a lot of hope for future away matches. Speaking of them, the Italy match was harsh in his opinion, especially as they could have taken the lead early on and even snatched a draw. Still, he was proud of his team over the last couple of matches; they had really surprised him and proved to McLaren that they could be the major force that he dreamed about making them. That, not to get carried away, was still a long, long way away.