McGhee urges Gordon Greer to cement Scotland place

Gordon Greer could face Croatia's Mario Mandzukic. Picture: Getty
Gordon Greer could face Croatia's Mario Mandzukic. Picture: Getty
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WHEN assessing the surprise call-ups to the latest Scotland squad, the hand of assistant manager Mark McGhee appeared to betray itself in the selection of Gordon Greer.

In six months’ time the central defender will turn 33. Until picked for the Croatian World Cup qualifier Gordon Strachan’s side face a week on Friday, the senior international experience of the former Kilmarnock, Swindon, Clyde, Doncaster and Blackburn Rovers player amounted to a B cap seven years ago, and a Futures team outing a year earlier.

Greer, though, is captain of Brighton, where it just so happens McGhee resides, having once managed there. Such powers of deduction, however, turn out to be less Holmesian and more Hong Kong Phooey.

“He had been on the radar prior to Gordon and I coming into our positions here. Craig Levein had spoken to me about him, Mick Oliver had spoken about him but, up until now, there have been people in front of him,” said McGhee, who can put up a persuasive case for Greer deserving his place. “He has been part of a team that has had the best defensive record in the Championship. I have seen as much of him as I have seen any of the others.

“When they played Arsenal in the FA Cup [Olivier] Giroud gave Brighton a hard day. His movement was clever and that is the most challenged I have seen Gordon in any game [he was substituted after 37 minutes of the 3-2 defeat]. All the others he has coped with.

“He is good on the ball. I know it is important to Gordon Strachan that everyone at the back is prepared to get on the ball and pass it out, and he is encouraged to do that every week with Brighton.”

Greer was willing to postpone his summer break to seize a chance, McGhee revealed, on the proviso that a chance really existed. With Wigan’s Gary Caldwell out injured and now out of the English Premier League, Christophe Berra having slumped to the English third tier with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Andy Webster a player whose fitness and Hearts future seem permanently uncertain, and, Grant Hanley aside, desperately few other options, then surely a chance exists for any Scottish centre-back who is willing and appears able in some way.

“I think that the impression I got when I spoke to Gordon was that all he was asking for was a fair deal. In that sense, he was saying, ‘yeah, I’m not bothered about delaying my holiday so long as it is genuine and I then have the opportunity to be in the next squad if I do well’,” McGhee said.

Maybe Greer is going to Zagreb by default but the Scotland assistant manager knows through personal experience how such circumstances can be the very making of football careers. “The way I put it to Gordon was that you can view it any way like you like, that you’re in because we find ourselves short, or as an opportunity. You are in, for whatever reason. I cited the fact that when I went to Aberdeen Stevie Archibald and wee Joe [Harper] were in the team and I struggled a bit. It was only when Joe got injured out here that I suddenly got an opportunity and I was never out of the team. There is something similar for Gordon here. Gordon can come in, impress in training and, if he gets the opportunity to play, he could be part of the up-and-coming squad.”

If Greer does play he is liable to find himself having to deal with Mario Mandzukic, who just last weekend netted to set Bayern Munich on their way to Champions League success. “That is the challenge to him,” McGhee said. “If he doesn’t fancy that then he should have said no because when I phoned him he knew who plays for Croatia. You want players with a bit of ambition and who want to challenge themselves [and he has that].”

The impact that potential other new cap Tony Watt made at Champions League level in the winter engenders hope that the youngster might embrace a challenge such as the daunting one that awaits Scotland in the Balkans next week. “Anybody who scores against a team like Barcelona has to be taken seriously,” McGhee said. “He is another one like Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven, who we feel will be an important part of the squad in the next 18 months to two years. The earlier we can get a look at them, not only in games, but in training and getting to know the boys a bit will be of benefit to them.”

Of benefit to Scotland is the fact that the third man in Strachan’s backroom team, Stuart McCall, elected to stay with Motherwell this week despite the offer to manage old club Sheffield United. But McGhee welcomes McCall’s decision to stay put for reasons that extend beyond his interest in the national set-up.

“Stuart is involved in the competition here week in, week out, and has an intimate knowledge of the division up here. I think that’s valuable to us. I think the more we can stop some sort of brain-drain the better.”