Croatia v Scotland: Jordan Rhodes seeks first goal

Jordan Rhodes has been extra careful in making sure he is in perfect shape as he prepares to face Croatia. Picture: SNS
Jordan Rhodes has been extra careful in making sure he is in perfect shape as he prepares to face Croatia. Picture: SNS
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HE HAS not played for over a month, but the hope is that Jordan Rhodes is able to take up where he left off for Blackburn Rovers.

The striker scored in six of his last seven appearances during a season in which, as well as collecting 33 goals, he picked up the Scotland international team’s player of the year award.

Rhodes has, however, yet to score a competitive goal for his country. Helping Scotland secure a result against Croatia in the Group A World Cup qualifying clash would be an ideal way to round off a season that, for Rhodes and several others, has been in abeyance for a number of weeks. Not that manager Gordon Strachan need have any concern about Rhodes’ methods of preparation. If every player had his attitude, we would never have heard of Boozegate, and other alcohol-fuelled adventures of Scottish international footballers over the years.

In days gone by, players who have been given a few weeks off at the end of the season would be in Torremolinos before you could say “a pint of lager shandy, please”. Rhodes, however, is one of the new breed. Polite, teetotal, health-conscious and probably good to his father as well.

His dad is, of course, Andy Rhodes, the slightly madcap Yorkshireman who made a name for himself in Scotland keeping goal for Dunfermline and St Johnstone. “He does my share of drinking as well as his own,” smiled Rhodes yesterday, when he explained his very modern, as well as admirable, approach to being a professional footballer. “He [his father] was a goalkeeper, so he didn’t need to run. He just stood there!”

Rhodes junior’s lifestyle is anything but sedentary, however. His domestic season finished on 4 May, when Blackburn drew with Birmingham City – and Rhodes scored the equaliser. Since then, he has, he says, been keeping fit by playing tennis and golf, while he has also been cycling, running and jogging. “Whether on holiday or not, you need to keep a competitive edge,” he said.

Lewis, his younger brother, has been a convenient sparring partner to have around. “He is as equally active as I am, so we’re both playing golf, tennis, going swimming, running,” he said. “There’s a competitiveness about it too.”

Even so much as eating a sandwich at lunch gives Rhodes pause for thought, as he calculates whether he has done enough exercise to burn off the calories consumed. During the season, when games are coming thick and fast, this is not so much of a concern. However, given the unusual length of break before tomorrow night’s fixture, he has had to be extra careful in order to ensure he is in the best possible shape to face the Croats.

“For the majority of the year, nine or ten months, you wake up in the morning, go and have your breakfast, and then do some exercise for the morning,” he said. “Then it’s pretty much not doing much else for the rest of the day.

“So, when that’s taken away from you, it’s a bit of a reality check. You kind of feel you might be eating food in the morning or a sandwich and thinking ‘I’m not really doing anything to burn this off’.

“So you feel you have to do something. Naturally, in your head, you know you have to keep active. Your body feels like it needs to do something, so there’s been plenty of sports.”

Rhodes referred to the series of challenge matches against his brother as the “mini-Olympics”. Lewis, like him, is not a drinker, so there is no pressure on heading out with friends on nights out. Rhodes eschews the nights out with his team-mates, and although the drinking culture still exists in football, there is, he reports, “less of it”. The 23-year-old made the choice not to drink long ago, after advice from his father, among others.

“Going out to a club on a Saturday night is not for me anymore,” said Rhodes. “I prefer to stay in with my family, parents, brothers and sisters. Others stay in with wives or girlfriends. It is each to their own.

“There is a time and a place for both lifestyles at certain times in the season. I’m the one who tends to be on the calmer side of it all, but that is not me saying that what I do is right and the other part of it is wrong.”

The centre forward’s behaviour had Mark McGhee, the Scotland assistant manager, shaking his head yesterday, as he smiled, and explained just how much of a contrast Rhodes is to the stereotypical footballer. Indeed, the striker has only been booked once this season (against Serbia, in his last appearance for Scotland). The fear is that he is simply too nice to make an impact at international level, although his consistent goalscoring with both Huddersfield and Blackburn would seem to indicate that he manages to adopt an assassin’s outlook when on the pitch.

He also displayed a flash of inner steel when asked about the nature of tomorrow night’s game, so far as Scotland are concerned. “It’s certainly not meaningless,” he stressed. “I know there’s not been a Scotland side yet who has gone through a competition without winning a game. We certainly don’t want to be a squad who goes down in history for all the wrong reasons.

“We want to stay out of the history books if we can,” he added. And as for that elusive first competitive goal (he has scored three times in friendlies), he added: “I haven’t scored in a competitive game but I’ll try my best if I’m selected for this match. I’ll give my all and I can’t say any more than that.

“It doesn’t matter who scores. If I get one then I’ll be delighted, but if it’s an own goal or a scrappy one or anyone gets it then I’ll be happy for Scotland.”

With that, he rose from the table, shook each reporter’s hand and then wished us a good trip. A rare gem, indeed.