MARK McGhee has revealed that he was overruled by Scotland manager Gordon Strachan when he suggested calling up Steven Fletcher for the forthcoming World Cup qualifying games against Belgium and Macedonia.
The Sunderland striker damaged ankle ligaments in the opening minutes of the match with Wales at Hampden in March and has not started a match since. However, he made a comeback in his club side’s 3-1 defeat by Crystal Palace at the weekend, scoring Sunderland’s goal with a header after coming on as a second half substitute.
McGhee, the Scotland assistant manager, was keen to add Fletcher to the list of strikers at Scotland’s disposal for the double header. Of the five forwards listed in the squad, not one is playing top-tier football. Strachan, though, decided against it, reasoning that it would be more prudent to let Fletcher continue finding form and fitness with Sunderland before thrusting him back into the international football arena.
McGhee imagined that if Scotland were still able to qualify for the World Cup finals in Brazil there would be no debate. Fletcher, who went into self-imposed international exile for much of Craig Levein’s reign as manager, would have been on the phone to offer his services himself.
However, a dismal start to the qualifying campaign quickly killed off their hopes and McGhee said: “I would like to think that were these two games critical to qualification that Steven Fletcher would have been on the phone to Gordon saying: ‘I know I have only played half a game, but I want to come and be part of it’.
“The fact is that he will be bedding himself in a bit more carefully than that. We know how good a player he is and with the retirement of Kenny Miller he is even more important now. But we want the lad back fit and able to contribute from the front, rather than coming off the bench when he is only half fit. The manager was not tempted to bring him back, but I was. He ruled it out right away.”
While Scotland are effectively playing for pride on Friday, they could still do with some extra firepower against Belgium. Even though the visitors will be without skipper Vincent Kompany, McGhee ranks them above both Croatia and England, against whom Scotland have performed so creditably in their last two outings.
“I think they are [above England and Croatia],” he said, of Marc Wilmots’ side. “They found their way. England haven’t quite gelled or found the formula to get the best of the group they have. I also think we caught Croatia a little bit short. We cannot deny how much they missed [Luka] Modric and how we benefited from that.
“Although Kompany is going to be missing for Belgium, it is a different position,” he added. “I think a creative player is a bigger miss than a destructive player, although I’m personally glad he’s not playing. Belgium are a team at full-tilt.”
Asked whether Scotland could ever hope to emulate the strides Belgium have made in recent times, McGhee was doubtful. He recalled having a discussion on the same topic at Hampden recently with a group of academy coaches and Mark Wotte, the Scottish Football Association Performance Director. They came to the conclusion that Belgium had numerous advantages over Scotland.
“They are almost double the population,” pointed out McGhee. “They are also choosing from a gene pool that is different to us. They have the advantage of an African connection and can bring in real athleticism.
“I read an article saying the proximity of the Belgian league to those in Holland, France and Germany almost forces their young players to go and join academies abroad and be developed by big clubs. I don’t think we can ever really expect to catch up in that way.”
McGhee also feels Belgium have been fortunate in that their production line of players has struck a particularly rich vein in recent years. “It is a cyclical thing,” he said. “When Sir Alex Ferguson arrived at Manchester United, he had that core group of fantastic youngsters who became the foundation of his success. Of course, he complemented them superbly with the players he signed, but they came along as an exceptional group.
“The Belgians will feel it happened before in the ’80s, when they reached the final of the European Championship,” he added. “They went into the doldrums later on. That probably wasn’t down to neglect or anything, just that the players weren’t there.
“We can hope, of course, that out of the gene pool that is East Dunbartonshire, Lanarkshire and South Ayrshire that we produce a group of players that will one day be as good as them. But they have a much broader base and I think that is a huge advantage.”