IT’S NOT unusual for a player to express his gratitude to a manager for turning around his club career. But Alan Hutton must be the first player in history who can attribute the resuscitation of his seemingly snuffed day-to-day professional life to the international existence afforded him by his country’s coach.
Hutton last month signed a new three-year contract with Aston Villa. The deal represented an astonishing reversal of fortunes. Across the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, the defender didn’t feature in a single game for the Midlands club. For those two years the club, under the management of Paul Lambert, were desperate to offload Hutton and his high wages. It was one of the cost-cutting measures enforced on Lambert as the result of owner Randy Lerner’s reluctance to burn through any more than the £120 million his stewardship of Villa had slashed from his personal fortune.
Hutton is now a regular with Villa again. Although he has had loan spells with Mallorca, Nottingham Forest and Bolton Wanderers in the past two years, between the summer of 2013 and the spring of 2014 he was a regular only for Gordon Strachan in Scotland colours. Hutton attributes this unexpected happy ending at Villa Park to Strachan’s refusal to discard a player who once joked ruefully that Scotland was the team he played for.
“[Gordon] has been unbelievable,” says the former Rangers right-back, who made his international debut more than seven years ago. “Scotland was the one thing that kept me sane. Training all week and not being anywhere near the first-team squad, it can be difficult to keep yourself motivated. It gave me something to look forward to. I was able to look ahead, see there was a big qualifying game coming up the following month or whenever and it gave me something to work towards.
“I was able to stay focused and work hard on my fitness levels to make sure I was in the best condition I possibly could have been by the time that game came along. Obviously there were times when I was coming up to join the squad and I thought he maybe wasn’t going to play me. But he stuck by me. I always came up and trained as hard as I possibly could and I definitely owe a lot to him for the faith he showed in me.”
Hutton describes it as “brilliant” to have signed a new Villa contract after years when he was so far in the “wilderness” at the club that he agrees he could have done with help from Bear Grylls. The 29-year-old is circumspect about whether he was a bear with a sore head when it came to the position Lambert left him in. He says it would have been “hard” for anyone not to harbour resentment. His manager’s candour prevented frustrations simmering, and he gives the impression it was straightforward to start afresh when that time arrived in July.
“Throughout that time out, I did have several conversations with him and they were positive,” he says. “I knew the situation at the club at that time, where they were and what they were trying to do and I had been told from the word go. It wasn’t as though anyone was lying to me – I’d be informed from the start. In that respect, I just had to get on with it and deal with it.
“At the end of the season we had a meeting and he just said at the beginning that I’d be back in for pre-season. I just took that as an opportunity to work hard, come back in fit and try to be involved. That was my main aim. From the first day I was back in for normal training and I went on pre-season to the States. I’d never hold a grudge. What happened, happened for a reason.”
What Hutton now wants to happen is him breathing new life into his Scotland career by earning 50 caps – he is on 42 – in the process of helping Scotland end an 18-year exile from major finals by qualifying for Euro 2016.
To that end, he will return to Poland on Tuesday in a very different situation from when he produced a typically energetic display to help Strachan’s side post a 1-0 friendly win at the national stadium in Warsaw six-and-a-half-months ago. Ahead of that March meeting, an outing for Bolton days earlier had marked his first club game of that season. In this campaign, he has already played seven times for Villa.
“I know they were missing a couple of big players but we played well on the night and caused them problems. It was a great stadium to play in and the atmosphere will be great,” he says. “Since the new manager came in I think it’s been one of the strongest groups I’ve been involved in. The mix of experience and younger ones has been good and you just need to look at the performances. There’s a good blend. Training we do is all geared towards games, how we’re going to set up and play. I think we’ve one of the best chances of qualifying in years.” Certainly, Hutton can only but feel the best he has in years.