THIS is a tale of two midfielders, both from Manchester United, one English and the other Scottish and as they return to the fold with their club you wonder if they’ll be swapping notes on their respective international experiences, so dramatically different were they.
Darren Fletcher is the Scot who last week was welcomed back to international football like a long-lost friend. The bowel condition disrupting the last three years of his career had deprived Scotland of his services for 17 months. In the lead-up to the friendly against Poland everyone from Gordon Strachan down was asked about Fletcher’s return. To a man they said it was fantastic news. Scott Brown, expected to hand back the captaincy to Fletcher, was asked about him when he launched the new away kit. Unconcerned about losing the armband in Warsaw – in the event he didn’t – Broonie instantly declared Fletch “one of the best I’ve ever played with”. With that kind of trumpet voluntary of appreciation it’s maybe no surprise Fletcher was nervous before the match, that at training he sclaffed his first four passes. But: feel the love, Darren.
Contrast all of that with Tom Cleverley’s ordeal. A supporters’ petition wanted him “banned” from this summer’s World Cup. On the day of England’s friendly with Denmark the list of names had topped 10,000. The instigator labelled the player “inept” and said he “possessed no qualities whatsoever”. At Wembley when Cleverley’s name was announced among the substitutes, it was loudly boo-ed. Not surprisingly, a sympathetic management didn’t risk putting him anywhere near the pitch.
Who the hell do England fans think they are? Do they think that painting “Dorking” or wherever on the horizontal of the St George’s Cross entitles them to pick the team? How long did each petitioner spend in consideration of Cleverley before appending their name – was it 0.25 of a second or less? What do they seriously expect to happen – that their criticisms will be anything other than destructive to the player’s confidence or that Roy Hodgson will eventually cave in and keep him off the plane to Rio?
The answer to the first question – Who do they think they are? – is easy. They’re England fans and this sort of arrogance comes naturally to them. It’s an arrogance born of spectacularly wonky entitlement, which we’d been led to believe was a thing of the past.
When England qualified from their easy group, the party line was that they’d reach the quarter-finals but no further. Roy Hodgson was doing quite a good job of managing the team and, it seemed, an even better one of managing whiteshirt expectations. But this petition rather suggests the English have fallen off the wagon and are back believing they can win the World Cup.
If you genuinely expect the team to take their leave in the traditional manner – last eight, penalty shoot-out – then why get so steamed up about a single player? Ah, but this is what the English do, when they think greatness is within their grasp. After France 98, effigies were burned of David Beckham. After the Germany World Cup six years ago, Frank Lampard was the target of the boo boys. Both were in effect held responsible for these tournament failures. Now, apparently, the World Cup is so tantalisingly within England’s grasp that nothing can be left to chance and, for the benefit of mankind it seems, Cleverley should be dumped.
Oh that Scotland had such riches that we could cheerfully discard players! Actually, I’d like to think that even if we were so blessed our fans wouldn’t be so pompous and self-important that they’d get up a petition. The truth is, of course, we can’t afford to discard anyone. All contributions gratefully received. All shortbread-baking grannies taken into account regarding nationality. Except that air of mild desperation has disappeared from the team. At the same time, no one is getting carried away by 1-0 wins in friendlies.
Immediately following the draw for Euro 2016 I got a bit worried we were disregarding Poland. Or, in the awestruck chatter about Germany and the overdone chatter about the tie with Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland possibly being at – whoopedo – Celtic Park, that we’d slightly forgotten about the challenge they’d pose. But Ross McCormack was one who warned after the friendly win that the Poles would be a whole different and more dangerous proposition with their returning Borussia Dortmund stars. Back in Warsaw for real in October, it won’t be enough to try and scare Poland with that rhubarb-and-custard kit.
McCormack seems typical of the kind of player now turning up for Scotland games. The Tartan Army and mere mortals like you and me cannot understand not turning up, but it wasn’t so long ago that a certain disillusion with the national team was spreading with one retiral after another – and the presence of Georgia in our group reminds us of a notorious tie in Tbilisi a few years back when a bunch of call-offs made miraculous recoveries for an Old Firm game a few days later. I was impressed, meeting Brown at the kit launch, by how often he stressed the importance of players doing that simple thing: turning up. Equally, I was impressed by Strachan’s similarly uncomplicated analysis of what we’re all doing here: “I think that’s why we have the national team – to make people happy.”
And now Fletcher is able to turn up again and that’s great news for a small country which can’t be so callous with genuine midfield quality. Fletcher is undoubtedly that, even though a few grumbles could be heard when, in a struggling Scotland, he wasn’t the glittering playmaker a Man U background had led some to expect. But this showed ignorance of his real job at Old Trafford – the heavy lifting which enabled Cristiano Ronaldo to look even more beautiful.
Fletch might mention this misconception in the sympathy he will undoubtedly extend towards Cleverley. Early on, the latter was being talked about as the new Paul Scholes. Injury hampered his progress, expectation can’t have helped, the current troubles at his club must be a problem – and now he’s got to deal with fan viciousness.
Wouldn’t it be great if he ignored the dorks of Dorking, went to Brazil and scored the winning goal in the final?
Well, wouldn’t it?