Faced with the prospect of opponents he described as “big minnows”, Billy Stark last night acknowledged that he has been handed an awkward assignment for his first outing as interim Scotland manager. However, he also sought to accentuate the positives ahead of tonight’s friendly fixture with Luxembourg following an enforced overhaul of the squad he named just a week ago.
Circumstances have made an underwhelming prospect appear even less attractive. Scotland are now in a period of flux following Craig Levein’s dismissal. It was always likely to prove a hard sell. Given the downbeat backdrop, this has proved doubly so. There is no Levein because there is already little hope left of qualifying for the World Cup finals in Brazil. Sadly, Jet2, the company from which the Scottish Football Association have chartered an aircraft to transport the players to the Grand Duchy, could be named after the number of points Scotland have accrued in four qualifying games.
Such a depressing statistic is why flight LS6254Y to Luxembourg included no Mr Levein on its passenger list. Quite a few others were absent, too.
Nine injury withdrawals have turned what was an experienced group of players into an inexperienced gathering of less familiar faces, many of them recruited from Scottish Premier League clubs. The interim manager is comfortable with the reasons given by the raft of English-based call-offs. Indeed, all nine absentees ply their trade in either the English Premier League or the English Championship.
“I was at Everton against Sunderland last Saturday and I saw Steven Fletcher,” said Stark. “He took such a bad one I thought he was going be stretchered off. That was legitimate, while Phil Bardsley wasn’t even stripped so we knew that was a complicated situation.
“There are others like Shaun Maloney and James Morrison. I spoke with James and he wasgenuinely hoping to make it. He had a calf strain but was desperate to come. But he ended up hurting his groin. That can happen when you’re protecting another injury.
“Listen, you can call me naïve but generally I’m happy that all the call-offs are legitimate.”
A plane that was little more than half-full said everything about a match that some contend should never have been organised in the first place. Club managers such as Celtic’s Neil Lennon are included among those who probably wish there had been a big poster pasted across the fixture, saying: cancelled due to lack of interest.
“I probably would have taken the game had I been in charge at the time,” said Stark, when asked whether he was happy with the arrangement. The interim manager understood why the question was put to him. However, he had a question of his own: why shouldn’t Scotland play when others such as England have committed themselves to a game? He felt it would be a dereliction of duty not to utilise one of ever fewer international dates left in the calendar.
“I’ve been asked if this game is worthwhile,” he added. “I think the manager at the time felt it was because it gives you a chance to look at different options. The qualifiers have everything riding on them and they are not a time to experiment in any shape or from.
“This would have been a chance for him to use some of the players who have been about the squad, like Jordan Rhodes or Grant Hanley. And now, with the likes of Andrew Shinnie, Murray Davidson, Liam Kelly and Leigh Griffiths all coming in, it’s also a great opportunity for them to show what they can do in a full international game.
“I’m quite glad that it hopefully reflects well on the SPL, because they are at clubs who are currently doing quite well. Sometimes players like that get a chance through circumstances that arise. I think you have to look at it positively.”
Stark confirmed that he planned to be “sympathetic” to Celtic’s needs in view of their Champions League clash against Benfica in Lisbon next week. There had been a suggestion from Lennon at the weekend that he had requested that Kris Commons and Charlie Mulgrew be rested due to their up-coming commitments in Europe.
“When I spoke to him last week, I didn’t detect any real signs of that,” he said. “We spoke about the likes of James Forrest and Scott Brown and it didn’t make any sense at all to include them. But he said Kris and Charlie would be available.”
Although both players have started games in this qualifying campaign, Stark believes tonight’s outing can help establish the pair in the international side. “Of course, the Champions League brings big games and this is a friendly international,” said Stark. “But in Charlie and Kris’s case they’ve not been regular Scotland players. They have the ability to be, so I think they’re looking on it as an opportunity – for however long they play – to show people they can do that.”
Celtic’s last outing in Europe illustrates why Stark has taken the threat of Luxembourg seriously. They may be underdogs, but Luc Holtz’s side should not be underestimated. Stark made the players sit through a detailed video analysis of their opponents on Monday night.
“If we lose this game it’s a chance for more negativity and we don’t want that,” Stark accepted. “It is a bit of a hiding to nothing because this is a game everybody expects us to win. I’ve said the same to the players.
“But, by the same token, you would probably say that Luxembourg are a big minnow in terms of their recent results. They beat Macedonia, they drew with Northern Ireland in Belfast and Portugal only beat them 2-1 in Luxembourg.”
However, Stark knows that defeat tonight in the Stade Josy Barthel cannot be borne if the Scots wish to start reversing a slide down the Fifa rankings. It would also prove devastating for his own managerial ambitions, though he continues to be coy on this particular subject.
According to Stark, he resisted making too many changes to the squad which Levein had been preparing to name prior to the events that unfolded last Monday. Stark feared this would have left him open to criticism that it had become his own vanity project. “It isn’t about me,” he insisted.
Stark, however, is included on the list of candidates to succeed Levein. Stewart Regan, the SFA chief executive, last night said it was a “great opportunity” for the interim manager to show what he can do. “This situation has arisen,” responded Stark. “I’m delighted to have been asked and I’ll do as professional a job as I can. We’ll then see what happens.”
LIFE OF LUXE
• WITH just 509,074 citizens, Luxembourg has a smaller population than Glasgow (598,830). However, life expectancy for men in Luxembourg is 78, compared to 71 in Glasgow.
• Of the 194 countries in the world, Luxembourg is ranked 170th in size and has Europe’s smallest population.
• Scotland will play tonight in the country’s largest sports venue, the 8,000-capacity Stade Josy Barthel. It was named after the only Luxembourger to win an Olympic gold medal (the men’s 1500m at the Helsinki Games in 1952).
• Luxembourg is a tax haven. Financial services is its main industry and there are 155 banks in the country.
• Scotland can’t match Luxembourg’s best showing at a major tournament. The minnows reached the quarter-finals of the 1964 European Championships after knocking out Holland. They lost 1-0 to Denmark in a replay after drawing home and away.
• Luxembourg are currently at 144 in FIFA’s rankings, 74 places below Scotland. Their last home match was a 6-0 defeat by Israel in a World Cup qualifier last month, although they managed a 1-1 draw away to Northern Ireland in September.
• They also managed to beat Scotland’s World Cup rivals Macedonia 2-1 at home in February, which is more than Craig Levein’s men could do in September.
• It’s almost 25 years since the countries last met, when Andy Roxburgh’s side – including Mo Johnston, Graeme Sharp and Paul McStay – were held to a 0-0 draw in Esch on 2 December, 1987, in a European Championship qualifier.
• Luxembourg hold the record for the most consecutive failures to qualify for the World Cup finals, with 19 unsuccessful bids.
FLETCHER (Man Utd)
MILLER (Vancouver WC)