JAMES Morrison has spent the best part of the last decade earning his living in the self-styled “greatest league in the world”, managing to thrive in a competition which dwarfs all others in terms of finance and media profile.
But if the English Premier League has become the environment where most leading players aspire to both perform and enhance their bank balances, Morrison believes it remains less technically demanding than playing international football for Scotland.
In an era when the extraordinary growth of the EPL is regarded by many pundits and managers as having been detrimental to the progress of the English national team, it is something of an eyebrow-raising observation from the West Bromwich Albion midfielder.
Morrison, though, insists that while English top-flight football is a greater physical test, the international game continues to present a stiffer mental examination of his capabilities.
“It’s a different type of football,” said the 29-year-old. “The Premier League is more athletic. The international game is more controlled. It’s all about breaking teams down and you are usually playing against better opposition.
“Basically, international football is more of a challenge tactically than the Premier League. You are travelling to different countries and coming up against different approaches which you have to try and adapt to. You also have to be more disciplined when you are playing for your country. You can’t really make tackles at all because you get booked for the slightest things in internationals. Playing for Scotland, we need to stick together through difficult periods in games if we are to come out on top at the other end.”
Morrison was speaking in Tennents’ Glasgow brewery at the launch of the SFA’s new £1 million sponsorship deal with the drinks giants who are now the official beer partner of the national team.
Sales of their product might just hit record levels next summer if Gordon Strachan’s squad can qualify for the Euro 2016 finals in France. Their prospects of doing so will be far clearer after their latest round of Group D fixtures, against Georgia in Tbilisi on Friday evening and then Germany at Hampden next Monday.
“This is the moment that we’ve been waiting for,” said Morrison. “This is a challenge to be embraced. We’re all aware that we’ve got a real opportunity. The group is really tight at the top and, however many points it takes, we’ve got to get them. It’s a real chance for us but we’ve got to try and win in Georgia, and we’ll do everything we can to get that result.
“I’m not going to lie, you do feel sometimes the pressure of Scotland not having qualified for a tournament since 1998. You are always aware of that. But the gaffer’s drummed into us that we need to be positive and to keep doing what we’ve been doing so far in this campaign. We’ve played well in our recent matches, even in the 1-1 draw with Ireland in Dublin last time out where we were under the cosh at first but came out in the second half and got on top of them.
“That’s the kind of reaction we want in high-pressure games. This is probably the toughest qualifying section in the competition, so it will be a job well done if we can get out of it. It’s basically down to the next round of fixtures and there’s going to be a lot of hard work involved. We’ve done the first part but now we have the second part to do, but we’re well equipped and a good week’s training will see us right.
“We haven’t set ourselves a points target and I think there will be upsets along the way. If we have enough points to qualify, we’ll have done our job. We have to get a positive outcome in Georgia ahead of two big games at home against Germany and then Poland next month. So it’s hard to say what we need, we’ll just play our games and see where it takes us.
“I don’t think it is a must-win game on Friday, because we could lose it and then beat Germany and Poland. But it’s probably a game we must not lose.
“There’s pressure on the game, full stop. We know that Ireland needed until the 90th minute to beat Georgia in Tbilisi, so when we get the chance we need to put it away. There will be huge delight if we come out on top.”
Morrison, named Player of the Year by West Bromwich supporters last season, has made a bright start to the current campaign for Tony Pulis’s side, although he endured a bitter-sweet afternoon in their recent 3-2 defeat by Chelsea when his two goals could not fully compensate for a penalty saved by Thibaut Courtois.
“I’m feeling better after last Saturday’s win at Stoke,” he smiled. “I was disappointed to miss the penalty against Chelsea and, even though I scored twice, we still lost the game. But we bounced back, which is what you always try to do after a defeat, so I’m happy with myself that I showed the character to do that.
“I’m enjoying my football just now, that’s the main thing. I’m a happy guy. I always enjoy coming away with Scotland, it’s like a club atmosphere here now and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been doing better recently.”