IT’S time for Steven Fletcher to step up to the plate for Scotland, says assistant manager Mark McGhee.
Scotland’s friendly against future Euro 2016 opponents Poland in Warsaw on Wednesday will provide a case of centre-forward envy. The country’s assistant manager Mark McGhee admits that, in Robert Lewandowski, the Poles have precisely the sort of “nailed-on” goal plunderer that has yet to emerge from the Scotland ranks.
In fairness, few international sides have a finisher to compare to the Borussia Dortmund man. The 25-year-old became Dortmund’s all-time leading scorer in Europe thanks to a midweek double in a 4-2 away win over Zenit St Petersburg that has put the Germans firmly on course for the Champions League quarter-finals. But McGhee is looking for Scotland to find a Lewandowksi-like performer in one sense, at least. Poland never need look further than him when it comes to striker selection. For Gordon Strachan, no individual has entirely made the position his own and, with only two internationals before the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign begins, McGhee wants all those in contention to use games for club and country “to show they’re the man”.
Steven Fletcher, pictured, is expected to be that man. Owing to a self-imposed exile and a number of injuries, his international career has hardly made him the made man. In 13 appearances for his country, he has netted only once. At club level, the 26-year-old has scored only once since November. An Achilles problem has kept him out for the last month, but Gus Poyet has named him in the Sunderland squad for the League Cup final this afternoon. The Uruguayan manager has cast doubt on whether the striker should travel to Poland if he features in the winning team at Wembley. McGhee gives the impression it would assist the Scotland cause were Fletcher only able to deliver a goalscoring display today.
“These games are where reputations are made,” he said. “There can be a dawning for a player when they go to a cup final and they are the man. You’ve maybe never played in one before but you step up to the mark. You realise you can crack it on the big stage and get the winning goal. That becomes a habit, in a sense, and you start to believe you can, and will, get a winning goal. This is the kind of situation for Fletch, to go in there and really show how good a player he is.”
It feels as if Fletcher’s international career has yet to spark. McGhee attributes that not to the player himself but the fact that the environment hasn’t allowed for the dark blue touchpaper to be lit. “He’s like anyone else, he needs to be in a team playing confidently, with service and in the right half of the pitch,” the Scotland No.2 says. “So I think you’ll now see him at his best for Scotland but that’s not up to him alone, it’s up to the rest of us as well.”
As for the rest of those possibles for striking roles, McGhee sees opportunities for Jordan Rhodes, despite his omission for the game in Warsaw. Ross McCormack has been preferred for this week’s friendly and there was also a late call-up yesterday for Leigh Griffiths following the withdrawal of Robert Snodgrass. McCormack, whose 23 goals for Leeds United this season make him the English Championship’s top scorer and make this season his best in front of goal, is a player well known and well liked by McGhee. As Motherwell manager in 2007, the Scotland assistant helped McCormack rebuild his confidence after he had been jettisoned by Rangers and then suffered a number of injuries in his first season at Fir Park. In Scotland colours, the 27-year-old has shown occasional flashes, but his ten-cap career has brought only three substitute appearances in the past 18 months.
“Ross has had a few setbacks because he’s had to pull out of squads recently,” McGhee says. “He’s not had a run at it but he knows how I feel about him. In a couple of the games he’s come on and not done as well as he can do. In Gordon’s eyes he’s not done enough at the moment to convince him he should be in the starting line-up. But we do rate him and he’s doing very well for Leeds United. So he’s got the opportunity to step up and show he can do it at this level. I’m a big fan of him, a lot of people misunderstand his attitude because he’s got that cheeky chappie thing about him. But he’s a great lad and takes it seriously.”
McCormack was made captain of the Elland Road club this season. His loyalty to the man who handed him the role, manager Brian McDermott, shone through when he slammed McDermott’s sacking in an interview conducted by Sky Sports News on transfer deadline day. This defence came after he had committed himself to the club amid talk of £5 million bids for him from West Ham and Cardiff. Those actions made him something of a folk hero to the club’s supporters. They might also have had a part of play in the fact that McDermott was later reinstated, the managerial saga coming amid behind-the-scenes machinations relating to a takeover
“To be Leeds captain says something about him and shows he’s taken a step in maturity,” McGhee says. “I called him to congratulate him when I heard that. Everyone saw him on Sky Sports and, although he was put on the spot, he handled it really well. As a former manager I have a great deal of respect for him for standing up for his manager. Not too many do that but he spoke up and fronted it out. A lot of players would think ‘the king is dead, long live the king’ but he backed the man he liked working with. He was big enough to deal with it and it was excellent to see what he did for his manager.” For McCormack, this week will all about what he can do for his Scotland manager. And his advocate of an assistant.