AS FAR as Jordan Rhodes’ Scotland career is concerned, Cairneyhill Primary School near Dunfermline ranks as ground zero.
It is because of the five years he spent at this establishment, from primary one to primary five, that Rhodes qualifies to play international football for Scotland.
The trouble is, he has not been playing enough in recent times, to the extent that some wonder whether his commitment to his adopted country is wavering. For those who fear this might be the case, his message yesterday was clear enough. His heart remains in Scotland, where he moved after his goalkeeper father Andy signed for Dunfermline Athletic in 1990, hence his early schooldays being spent in this country.
“This is my link to being able to play for Scotland,” Rhodes mused, as he surveyed the surroundings yesterday, having agreed to become the latest Tesco Bank Community Ambassador. Some have expressed concern that this link is in danger of being broken as Rhodes continues to struggle to establish himself in the Scotland team, despite continued good form in front of goal for Blackburn Rovers.
He has scored 16 times so far this season and 43 goals in total after only 63 appearances. At previous club Huddersfield Town, he struck 87 times in 149 games. But he hasn’t started a game for Scotland since March last year against Serbia. Indeed, this is his only start so far under current manager Gordon Strachan.
However, Rhodes yesterday stressed he has no issue with Strachan, whose pronouncements on the subject of the 25year-old have left some wondering whether he rates the striker. The Scotland manager was most forthright on the subject of Rhodes in the run-up to the World Cup qualifier against Macedonia in September, and after the striker had watched as English League One player Leigh Griffiths was again picked ahead of him for the previous clash versus Belgium.
Strachan discussed how his system did not suit Rhodes, who “is at his best when playing with another striker”. The following day it was confirmed that the player had pulled out of the squad with a hand injury. Strachan later returned to the subject of Rhodes prior to naming his squad for the final World Cup qualifier against Croatia, comparing him with Billy Pirie, with whom he once played at Dundee. Like Rhodes, Pirie was also a prolific scorer. “But he didn’t get us promoted,” pointed out Strachan, who then added: “It’s all about the team.” Again, Rhodes pulled out of the squad, this time with an ankle injury.
The player yesterday insisted that there is no connection between Strachan’s honest assessment and his recent absences. However, contrary to the manager’s contention, Rhodes believes he can flourish in the lone striker role. It is how he is deployed at Blackburn Rovers, after all. “I have been playing that lone striker role for 18 months at Blackburn,” he pointed out.
“I maybe won’t necessarily have to change my game but I can improve my game,” he conceded.
The Oldham-born Rhodes is not regretting his decision to opt for Scotland, with the opportunity having arisen after Gordon Smith, the former SFA secretary, drove through reform to eligibility restrictions involving the home nations. The “bloodline” gentleman’s agreement has been extended to include those who have been schooled for five years in a particular country, as with Rhodes and current Chelsea player Islam Feruz. It was thrilling for Rhodes to hear that he could, after all, play for Scotland, where he remembers honing his skills in the gym at school, using up-turned benches as the goal.
“It meant you had to keep your shots low,” he smiled yesterday, as he reflected on a time when his “loyalties were all over the place” – split between Dunfermline and St Johnstone, the club his father moved to after East End Park.
“I have enjoyed my time with Scotland up to now so I won’t be the one to put that to an end,” he stressed. “I will always make myself available so then it’s up to the manager whether he wants to pick me. I don’t have any regrets about choosing to play for Scotland.”
Indeed, he believes his early days with the Scotland under-21 team opened doors for him. “Going away with [manager] Billy Stark and [director of football development] Jim Fleeting with the under-21s is what made me the player I am today,” he said. “The work I did with them and learned from them improved my game at Huddersfield and took me to Blackburn. Without a doubt, without Billy Stark and Jim Fleeting I wouldn’t be sitting where I am today.”
On the subject of what was perceived by some to be unjust – and unnecessary – criticism of the striker by Strachan, Rhodes said: “One or two words maybe got misinterpreted or twisted, I’m not quite sure what it was.
“The manager hasn’t said anything to me privately,” he continued. “Football’s about opinions. Every manager has a different opinion on how he wants his team to play. I’ve had plenty of knock-backs in my career, and I’ve had plenty of criticism, earlier in my career at Ipswich in particular. But it is about how you respond.”
“It’s a real honour to be called up for Scotland and I see it as a bonus to get time on the field,” he added. “I have 12 caps now and a few highlights, like scoring at home against Australia, away to Luxembourg and coming on at Wembley against England.”
Refreshingly, he seems genuinely more concerned about the greater good than his own personal prospects. “It’s not about me and whether I have scored or laid a goal on for someone, it’s about the team winning matches,” he said. “The manager [Strachan] is a top guy. He’s doing things the right way in preparing the national side. That has been shown over the course of the time he has been in charge. It has been shown in the results and, even as a fan looking on when I am not even involved, it’s been fantastic to watch.”