Grant Hanley has assured concerned Scotland fans that out-of-favour Jordan Rhodes won’t “spit the dummy out” despite his continued international exile. Hanley is now skipper at Blackburn Rovers, where Rhodes has continued to score regularly.
Although he has not found the net in his last three games, a spate of goals before Scotland played Germany in their opening Euro 2016 qualifier meant that Rhodes’ absence from the squad was remarked upon. He has again been overlooked for the up-coming fixtures against Georgia and Poland and has not featured under Strachan since appearing as a second-half substitute against Belgium at Hampden Park over a year ago. He has only started one game for the manager – against Serbia in March 2013.
Strachan suggested Rhodes was at his best when “playing with another striker”, a system Scotland have long since shelved in favour of a lone forward supported from behind by two or three players. But in an interview earlier this year, Rhodes pointed out that he had been playing as a lone striker for 18 months at Blackburn.
But Rhodes also said that he had enjoyed his time at Scotland, stressing that “he won’t be the one to put that to an end”. ”This comment eased fears within the Tartan Army that the player was tiring of being overlooked and might walk away from the international scene. Hanley yesterday confirmed that Rhodes was “envious” of him going away to play for Scotland. He reported that the striker was working harder than ever to get back into the Scotland squad, with Strachan having on this occasion opted for 21 year-old Stevie May and Chris Martin as well as more established stars Steven Fletcher and Steven Naismith over Rhodes.
“Jordan is disappointed,” reported Hanley. “Like the rest of the lads, he enjoys coming away with Scotland. Jordan is a good professional. He’s always working hard and he keeps doing that and keeps scoring goals I think he will get himself back in.
“Jordan’s such a great lad, he would never spit the dummy out,” he added. “There’s a lot of competition for places here and every game requires different players. And if he keeps working hard and keeps scoring goals then I think he will be back.”
Hanley is grateful to find himself at the other extreme – he is one of Strachan’s mainstays. But he doesn’t consider himself to be an automatic pick.
“No I wouldn’t say so,” he said. “Competition for places is high and I feel that every time I come here I need to be on top form and prove myself in training. I need to want that shirt but that’s good. It forces everyone to be at their best but it spurs everyone on and there’s a great team spirit.”
While Scotland are well-blessed with goalkeepers, midfielders and even strikers to the extent that someone as prolific as Rhodes can be left out, there is a widely held view that centre-back is where options are limited. Hanley has been thrust into the role of regular partner alongside Russell Martin, who often plays at full-back for his club, Norwich City.
While both have served Scotland well, it does not stop wistful remarks about the days when Scotland could count on such a high quality pairing as Alex McLeish and Willie Miller, for example, or even the Colins Calderwood and Hendry, who performed in the heart of the defence when Scotland last qualified for a major finals 16 years ago.
“I’m here to do my best and the other defenders will tell you that too,” pointed out Hanley. “We work hard on our defence when we are with Scotland. I feel it’s something we are improving on.”
It is perhaps a good omen that Scotland have gone into a qualifying campaign with a Blackburn Rovers skipper at centre-half – Colin Hendry, who skippered Scotland to the World Cup finals in 1998, was of course a hero of Ewood Park.
“Colin had a coaching role at Blackburn,” said Hanley. “I get on really well with Colin, he’s a great guy. In his time at Blackburn during his coaching role I really liked him and he was someone I always spoke to.”
If Hanley can give as little away on the pitch as he does in an interview, then Scotland are well set. Asked about Ibrox, where Scotland host Georgia on Saturday, he said that while he had never played there, he had been there “a couple of times” as a supporter. Is he a Rangers fan, then? “No comment,” he answered. Does he remember the games? “It was when I was young, really young, I can’t really remember.”
But he is sure of one thing – Scotland cannot afford to drop points in home games, whether they are staged at Hampden Park or elsewhere. “With it not being at Hampden it doesn’t really make much of a difference, the atmosphere will still be brilliant, the fans will still give us the best chance to pick up points – as always, in any competition, whenever you play at home.”