RICKY Sbragia yesterday spoke at length for the first time about his upset over the abuse heaped on him after he omitted then Real Madrid attacker Jack Harper from the Scotland squad he led into the Uefa Under-19 European Championship elite round in March.
The 59-year-old reflected on that furore as he could be confident no such outcry would arise from his first naming of a Scotland under-21 squad since he was promoted to the post from 19s level last week by new SFA director of football Brian McClair.
Harper is currently injured, so he was never going to be in contention for the encounter away to Northern Ireland on 5 September, which will kick off the under-21s’ latest European Championship qualifying campaign. More significantly, though, the 19-year-old now plays for English Championship club Brighton after he was freed in the summer by the Bernabeu behemoths following limited progress in the club’s academy set-up.
Harper, then, will no longer be a cause célèbre for a Scottish football fraternity who damned Sbragia for not selecting him without ever having seen the youngster play. Frankly, most detractors of the Scotland coach were simply dazzled by Harper’s Real Madrid connection.
Yet, Sbragia accepts he did not help himself in how he sought to explain his decision to opt for other players ahead of Harper. He cited the need for height in his ranks, despite Harper being more than six feet tall. And he left himself open to accusations of an antiquated approach in stating Scotland would rely on runners and physicality for their three qualifiers in Austria while Harper, whom he praised as “exceptionally gifted”, could be considered a “luxury” player.
Sbragia received an almighty going over on social media and is relieved that, in the world of telecommunications at least, he really is behind the times.
“I was at fault with the Jack Harper situation,” said Sbragia, who stated that any conversations he may have had with the player over what happened in March will remain confidential. “My choice of words was exactly brilliant. What I said was completely different from what I am and what I do on the training pitch and how I want them to develop.
“I did say Jack was a good player and I still believe that. I also said the door was always open to him. I suppose I was hurt by the criticism. It’s the first time it has ever happened… saying that maybe I’m a dinosaur.
“I’m not on social media – I can just about send a text message now – but my wife had a hell of a time and my family were sending me messages. That’s football and it’s not bad that in 44 years I’ve been criticised once. I have to take it.
“We spoke about it but my friends in general know exactly what I’m like and the one thing that sort of surprised me was how good the players were. A lot came out and spoke, even Darren Fletcher who I worked with. A lot of people sent me cuttings and that cheered me up. It was nice. But the criticism is football and part of the business. I don’t enjoy leaving players out and people have an opinion on who should and shouldn’t be in.
“I know Jack is injured but I’m glad he’s gone to Brighton. It is sad when any player is released but he’s managed to go to a good club and we’ll definitely take in their games. We’ve always said that anyone who is performing at their best will come into the under-21 squad. I’ll have to chat to Jack but I speak to them all. There’s about 44 players and I have to pick 22 and it’s difficult. The door is always open. We’ve got two games in October and it could completely change.”
Despite the presence of France, Ukraine and Iceland in Scotland’s six-team strong Group 3, Sbragia has “good expectations” about what could follow from his first attempt to take the under-21s into a major finals after Scotland have missed out at this level for almost two decades. A total of 12 final places are available, up from the eight for recent finals. As a result, all ten group winners will go through, while the four best runners-up contest two play-offs. He believes his squad, which features five players from Hearts, and a raft of performers whom Sbragia’s predecessor Billy Stark blooded in the last campaign, has a good balance and good attacking options.
“I have watched something like 45 games [recently], it isn’t like I have been up in the office, twiddling my thumbs and not doing anything. I have watched a lot of the games, a lot of the players in Scotland,” he said. “It is always difficult with the squad because there is such a pool of talented players. There is probably another 20 or so players I could have picked as well.
“I spent two days in Inverness when they played Astra and watched Ryan Christie before watching them train the following day. There’s a lot of experience going forward with the likes of [Hearts’] Sam Nicholson and Billy King and [Sporting’s] Ryan Gauld.
“It’s about fitting them into a pattern. Ryan Gauld is in the ‘B’ League now [in Portugal] so he’s playing a lot of football at a good standard.
“Ryan has always been a good player. There was something special from the moment I watched him at 17 and it could just be patience because he’s got a great future ahead of him.”