CRAIG BRYSON is in danger of becoming a poster boy for the theory that too many Scottish footballers peak in their late 20s.
Such a billing would frustrate the Derby County midfielder, because he believes he was ready to play for Scotland some time before the goals started to rattle in, adding a clamour to his quiet claims.
Six in 11 Championship games for the Rams this season, including a hat-trick against Millwall that was notable for the quality of all three strikes. Six assists, too. Inevitably, up the road, these are impressive bald statistics that validate for many Gordon Strachan’s decision to add 26-year-old Bryson to his squad for the closing World Cup qualifiers, which will determine who he entrusts with the serious business of qualifying for Euro 2016 in France.
But if Bryson sees action next Tuesday against Croatia, the former Kilmarnock and Clyde player would prefer to believe that the Scotland manager is basing his selection on what he has seen in training and from a stand seat at Pride Park, rather than from scrutinising the results page of his Sunday paper, where his name is popping up with increasing regularity.
Referees can’t have done him any harm, either – and not the type of referees who blow into whistles. Nigel Clough rated him highly and Steve McClaren, the new Derby and one-time England manager, has endorsed Bryson’s abilities, describing his performance stats from last week’s 4-4 draw with Ipswich Town as “incredible”.
“I have always been quite confident, but this season we have played a different formation and I’ve had more licence to get in the box – I’m getting my chances and I’m taking them,” Bryson explained of his purple patch. “I’m scoring from outside the box as well because I’m taking more shots. I’m a box-to-box midfielder but I always felt I could score more goals and should score more goals.”
The man from Rutherglen has one Scotland cap, but it wasn’t the debut he had dreamed about. Twenty-five minutes off the bench in a friendly against Faroe Islands at Pittodrie. Memories? “I remember it being cold.”
That was three years ago, but it is very nearly a decade since his senior career began happily at Stark’s Park. Bryson, a 17-year-old Clyde debutant, scored in a 3-2 win over Raith Rovers that day, though more fans around the country will recall his opening goal in the ruination of Roy Keane’s Celtic debut in 2006.Since then his career has enjoyed a steady, if not accelerated, trajectory to the Midlands via Ayrshire, and he believes these return journeys to the south side of Glasgow for national duty are long overdue. No matter how many times he plays for Scotland, the price of his joining Derby will not exceed half a million, and this now looks like less of a bargain than a steal.
“I think I have been overlooked in the past by previous Scotland managers at times when I’ve been playing well, both for Kilmarnock and down south. There’s not much you can do about it if they don’t pick you except just keep playing well for your club and training hard,” he said. “I don’t know why it was; I really thought I might have a wee sniff but it wasn’t to be. Before, I would get excited when the squad was coming out but I kept on being disappointed, so I did stop looking to be honest.
“When I signed from Kilmarnock, I thought, ‘if I can come down and establish myself in the Championship I might have a chance of getting in the squad – but in my first season at Derby I was Player of the Year and I never got a sniff.
“I built on those performances last season, and at the start of this season, and that must be what got me back in.
“I think if you look at Scotland, they are probably strongest in the middle of the park. There are a lot of options in midfield, with a few players playing in the Premiership. So I’ve got to battle it out with them.
“It does get you a wee bit down when you’re overlooked, and you start to wonder what you have to do to get a chance. But I didn’t let it affect me.
“I don’t think I am the type of person [to complain], even if I did feel like that. You’ve got to keep on being professional.
“I’m just delighted now, and happy to be getting in the squad.
“It has taken a while to get back in but if I’m on the bench or in the stands at Hampden, it’s just good to be in the Scotland set-up.”