ROSS McCormack cannot be faulted for his honesty. Asked yesterday whether he ever thought he might one day be named captain at a club, in his case Leeds United, he answered: “No, not really”. But it is this very honesty that helps him qualify as captain material.
He knows he is following in the distinguished tread of several other Scottish skippers at Leeds. Among this number is Gordon Strachan, the current Scotland manager, and someone who has enough faith in McCormack to select him as one of just three strikers in the original squad for tomorrow night’s friendly clash with Poland.
Perhaps Strachan has been persuaded to include McCormack, whose Scotland career has been a stop-start affair, by the clear evidence that the player has matured to such an impressive extent. His impressive shouldering of the twin responsibilities of skipper and chief goal provider at Leeds has already attracted attention.
Now finally settled in the striker position at his club, he is aiming to grab the main striker jersey for his country, though he described the competition as fierce. But he also admits to finally feeling at home at international level, after ten caps stretched over six years since making his debut under George Burley against Czech Republic. “I don’t think I’ve ever not been ready,” he said yesterday. “Anybody called up is ready to play for their country. But, in terms of being a regular in the squad, I feel ready to be part of it.
“There have been frustrating times,” he added. “But I’ve found my position, playing up front for Leeds and scoring goals. Maybe in the last few years I’ve been playing well but playing in different positions, so it was hard to nail down a position and say: ‘This is where I’m playing’.”
As for the role of lead striker with Scotland, he added: “It would be nice to claim it. I think it’s difficult, because we’ve got so many good strikers. [Steven] Fletcher has done it in the Premier League, Naisy [Steven Naismith] has scored a few for Everton recently, Leigh Griffiths bagged a hat-trick for Celtic at the weekend as well. So we’ve got a few good strikers in the squad.”
McCormack is also certainly on form, having scored six times in his last six games. The haul includes a hat-trick of his own, against Huddersfield Town last month. It is an especially impressive return considering the uncertainty that has continued to plague Leeds. As recently as the last day in January – otherwise known as transfer deadline day – came reports that manager Brian McDermott had been sacked. Days later, he was reinstated.
With his own future in doubt following a bid to sign him from former club Cardiff City, McCormack conducted an unusually candid interview with Sky Sports as the hours ticked down towards deadline. He made little secret of his dismay at the treatment of McDermott, who had appointed him club captain just a fortnight earlier. McCormack stressed he was speaking on behalf of the squad when he went public with his complaints, but it was his own decision to speak out, and further illustrated the 27-year-old’s growing sense of responsibility. “When I was younger I probably liked a laugh and a joke too much,” he admitted. “Now I’m a little bit older I tend to be more serious about my work and how I conduct myself on the training field. It’s the same off the field.”
With regards to his transfer deadline day outburst, he explained: “It was important because at that time there were six of us in Noel Hunt’s house that night. All six of us could not believe what was happening. It was not just me. As I said, I was speaking on behalf of the whole squad. It was a crazy day. I am glad it has gone.”
McDermott is back in situ and Italian businessman Massimo Cellino’s attempted takeover remains under consideration by the English Football League. Leeds’ form has stabilised in recent weeks since making an FA Cup exit at Rochdale and then falling to a 6-0 defeat by Sheffield Wednesday.
McCormack, who still has more than three years of his contract to run, is focused on the future at Leeds after such a turbulent January.
Those three goals against Huddersfield on the first day of February helped wash away some of the concerns, as did McDermott’s reinstatement. “I was just being honest,” said McCormack, as he reflected on his public criticism of the manager’s treatment. “Never once did I say I have had enough, I want to go.”
Leeds have recently made the on-loan signings of Connor Wickham and goalkeeper Jack Butland, who McCormack described as two “very promising” English youngsters. They have already made an impact. “If we don’t make the play-offs this year then hopefully Mr Cellino will back the manager in the summer to really go and galvanise the club and give us a great shout next season,” said McCormack.
With Leeds in mid-table, challenging for a play-off place this season might indeed be unrealistic. But it means next season could offer a tantalising pair of objectives for McCormack in the form of qualification for Euro 2016 with his country while leading Leeds back to the Premier League. “Quite easy, eh?” he smiled. “But challenges in life are what drive you forward and those are two very big ones. Personally, these are challenges I have to try and achieve. I have three-and-a-bit years left at Leeds. It’s long term and I’m happy with it.”
He aims to continue being a positive influence to the young players at Leeds, putting into practice lessons learned from captains he himself played under, including the late Phil O’Donnell at Motherwell. “Phil is unique and the way he used to go about things, he was just a proper nice guy,” said McCormack. “It didn’t matter whether you were a player, a member of staff, the media, or the fans. It didn’t matter to him. I tend to try and talk to the lads one-on-one before the game and try to get into their heads a little bit.
“It’s about plenty of encouragement,” he added. “There are not many captains slaughtering players these days. That has gone. You can only be positive and I think that is something I genuinely make an effort to be.”