GORDON STRACHAN believes the return of Darren Fletcher will bring significant improvement to his Scotland side as they intensify their preparations for the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
Fletcher was named in a Scotland squad for the first time by Strachan yesterday, the Manchester United midfielder included in a 24-man party for the international challenge match against Poland in Warsaw on 5 March.
The 30-year-old Scotland captain has not played for his country since winning his 61st cap against Luxembourg in November 2012, shortly before he was forced to spend almost a year on the sidelines as he recovered from surgery for his debilitating and long-standing ulcerative colitis bowel condition.
Fletcher has made nine appearances for Manchester United since making his comeback in mid-December and is now poised to reclaim both the armband and his place at the heart of Scotland’s midfield in a fortnight.
Strachan has enjoyed a generally positive first year as Scotland manager, winning half of his ten games in charge so far, but he insists Fletcher’s presence has been missed.
“That’s not being disrespectful to anyone who has played since I came in – trust me,” said Strachan. “But yes, Darren has been missed. I just think he gives you different things – even height and strength. He adds that presence, standing in the tunnel when you see someone of his stature. I am sure people who play with him appreciate that.
“It’s always great when you play football and you find yourself going out the tunnel with great players next to you. Some have great presence – and Darren has got that.
“I think his stature and experience can rub off on others. I was watching Stiliyan Petrov talking about his all-time 11 fantasy team on Sky the other day. He named Roy Keane in it – but he only played with Roy about 15 times. That shows you the presence these people have – they make you feel better when they are there. Darren is a huge player for us. If you play for Manchester United, play regularly and play that many games, then we must use that experience.”
Strachan revealed he had something of a personal insight into the ordeal Fletcher went through with ulcerative colitis, one which helped in the regular conversations he had with the player over the past year.
“A mate of mine had a similar operation to the one Darren had,” said Strachan. “So I knew what it was about, because I am close to my mate and I knew what he was going through. So I understood it and I knew how hard it was. I was able to speak to Darren about that. He had a very positive attitude. That’s what you get in public, he didn’t let it get him down too much.
“But what happens behind the scenes is entirely different sometimes. What’s great is that Darren had his wife and family there to help him through it.”
Fletcher had stressed recently that he wanted a Scotland recall to be the result of his efforts on the pitch, rather than any sympathy vote. Strachan made it clear yesterday the player is in his squad on merit.
“You just look at the games he’s played recently,” added Strachan. “It had been very hard to go to Old Trafford as Scotland manager, because I was not sure when Darren was going to play. But I have seen him on telly and still see the same stride, the same enthusiasm – that hasn’t changed. I’ve said to him he has had a year out and that he should now add that to the end of his career. Just treat it as a rest.”
Sunderland full-back Phil Bardsley was also recalled to the squad for the first time since he was an unused substitute in Strachan’s first match against Estonia in February last year. The 28-year-old has been in impressive form for Sunderland since Gus Poyet became manager, having earlier fallen foul of his predecessor Paolo di Canio when he broke a team curfew and was photographed lying on the floor of a casino covered in £50 notes.
“I can only judge people on what they do when they come along and join our squad,” shrugged Strachan.
“Unless something extraordinary has happened, then I can only deal with how they deal with me. I have had no problems with any of the Scotland players.
“Their behaviour has been wonderful – and I realise I’m talking myself into a hole here, because I know what’s going to happen now!
“Listen, over the years in Scotland we’ve had off-field bits and bobs going back 40 or 50 years. That can happen but actually they are getting less. I know with the Scotland squad that we have had no problems in my first year.
“So we have these standards now and I don’t have to tell anybody.
“The standards we have set and the group have set will have to be met by everybody that comes in here. That’s not a threat – that’s just the way we behave. I have been happy with the way they have trained, behaved and everything else. So there are no rules. I am just expecting everybody to behave like a professional football player and a good team-mate when they turn up.
“Phil has also had problems with injury and not getting a game. Sometimes as a football player you fall into that time when life’s not great but he’s got over that period and now his body language is different on the football field.
“He looks like he is taking responsibility and looks far more disciplined as well, which is good. He has been a big plus for Sunderland.”
Matt Gilks (Blackpool)
David Marshall (Cardiff City)
Allan McGregor (Hull City)
Phil Bardsley (Sunderland)
Christophe Berra (Ipswich Town)
Gordon Greer (Brighton and Hove Albion)
Grant Hanley (Blackburn Rovers)
Alan Hutton (Aston Villa)
Russell Martin (Norwich City)
Andrew Robertson (Dundee United)
Steven Whittaker (Norwich City)
Charlie Adam (Stoke City)
Ikechi Anya (Watford)
Barry Bannan (Crystal Palace)
Scott Brown (Celtic)
Chris Burke (Birmingham City)
Darren Fletcher (Manchester United)
James Forrest (Celtic)
James Morrison (West Bromwich Albion)
Charlie Mulgrew (Celtic)
Robert Snodgrass (Norwich City)
Steven Fletcher (Sunderland)
Ross McCormack (Leeds United)
Steven Naismith (Everton)