SCOTLAND manager Craig Levein believes Andy Webster can make up for lost time by becoming a cornerstone of the country’s attempt to reach the 2014 World Cup Finals in Brazil.
Hearts defender Webster was recalled to the Scotland squad today, more than two years after his last appearance for the national team, and is poised to earn his 24th cap in the friendly against USA in Jacksonville, Florida on Saturday 26 May.
The 30-year-old’s career has been plagued by injury but Levein’s belief in a player he signed from Arbroath when he was Hearts manager has never wavered. Webster’s club form this season, which has been instrumental in Hearts’ progress to this Saturday’s Scottish Cup Final, has persuaded Levein the time is right to bring him back into his squad.
“Andy should have 50 caps by now in my opinion,” said Levein. “I signed him as a kid and he absolutely has international qualities. But, although he has done some really good things in his career, loads of things have hampered him.
“He is now back. I had a discussion a while ago with Andy and I needed to see him back playing every week, right through a season and getting himself back to a level where he is match fit and match sharp. Now he is at that level, he has been fantastic for Hearts.
“He is a strong character. I also took him to Dundee United when I was there and he went on the lift the Scottish Cup. Now he is a key player for Hearts going into another final. I know him well and it’s good to get him back.”
Webster is likely to line up alongside Wigan Athletic captain Gary Caldwell in central defence for Scotland at EverBank Field in Jacksonville next week, a partnership which could become a mainstay of Levein’s side for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers which begin in September.
“I hesitate to say that about any combination of players together,” added Levein. “I’ve said in the past that I think Grant Hanley and Danny Wilson, two of our younger centre backs, have international quality.
“But Webster and Caldwell both like to talk, to organise and help people round about them. There are certain positions on the field where experience is more important than anything. Centre-back, for me, is a position where the older you get, the more you understand the position and the better you perform. What is apparent and exciting to me is that we are starting to get a really, really strong group. I’d love to see Andy Webster back as part of that going into the World Cup campaign.”
Dundee United striker Johnny Russell has received his first senior call-up, although the 22-year-old will return to the under-21 squad for their European Championship qualifier against Bulgaria at the end of the month.
Russell’s introduction is part of Levein’s strategy to create a list of around 40 players he can consistently draw his squads from in the forthcoming campaign with confidence he has strength in depth in every area of the field.
“I’m saying 40, it might be 38 or 43, I don’t know,” said Levein. “But it will become a pool that I’ll pick from. I’m not saying it will be closed at all. I’m just going to try to get four players for each position as a starting point for the bigger pool I would pick from. If I can do that, and be comfortable with the fourth choice in each position, then you know we are really strong. I’m not saying I can guarantee to get four for each position but I’d like to look towards that. If I can do that, it would indicate the strength of the group. It’s very difficult to say what your first-choice eleven is. Every time I put a squad together, there are always players injured.”
Among those missing the trip to Florida because of illness or injury are Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher, Aston Villa full-back Alan Hutton, West Bromwich Albion midfielder James Morrison and Charlie Adam of Liverpool. QPR striker Jamie Mackie and West Brom forward Graham Dorrans, meanwhile, have been excused by Levein as both of their partners are due to give birth imminently.
There are recalls for Derby County’s player of the year Craig Bryson, who won his only previous cap against the Faroe Islands in November 2010, while Wigan forward Shaun Maloney returns for the first time since featuring in that friendly.
Maloney’s end-of-season form was instrumental in Wigan avoiding relegation from the English Premier League and Levein has also been hugely impressed by his club-mate James McArthur. “Shaun has been unfortunate with injuries but he is an international-class player,” he said. “James has been fantastic, he’s improved his game enormously, which is a great credit to Wigan manager Roberto Martinez. We don’t have what I would class as an experienced holding midfield player and James is very much pushing for that role.”
Fletcher’s ongoing recovery from a chronic bowel condition is being closely monitored by Levein but initial plans that the captain would travel with the squad in a non-playing capacity next week have been shelved.
“I spoke to Darren a couple of days ago,” said Levein. “He hoped he would be well enough to travel but he was a little bit uncertain about it. So I said that if he was unsure, the best thing for him was to stay put. I see him as a really important part of the group. He has a great influence on other people and it’s always great if he’s there. But what I didn’t want to do was to take him out of his rehabilitation, whatever the complications might have been with that. So we had a chat and decided to knock it on the head.
“But I desperately want him back. You can never say anything in football with any degree of certainty but I believe if he had been fit for Manchester United this year, he might have made the difference between them not winning and winning the title. That’s how highly I regard him.
“He’s always a very positive boy. It’s my intention to have him back with us to try to qualify for Brazil. I don’t really like speaking about his illness. It’s something which is for him and his doctors. It’s not my position to speak publicly about it. I don’t feel comfortable about that, because I don’t know with any degree of certainty exactly what the situation is.”
Levein, meanwhile, is content with the level of firepower at his disposal following his decision to rule out any return for Wolves striker Steven Fletcher. “I know a lot of people have spoken about the situation with Steven Fletcher but I haven’t looked at us and thought we are struggling to score goals,” said Levein. “We create chances in every match and I’m not worried about that in the slightest.”
Scotland squad in full
Matt Gilks (Blackpool)
Craig Gordon (Sunderland)
Allan McGregor (Rangers)
Charlie Mulgrew (Celtic)
Phil Bardsley (Sunderland)
Christophe Berra (Wolves)
Gary Caldwell (Wigan)
Russell Martin (Norwich)
Lee Wallace (Rangers)
Andy Webster (Hearts)
Steven Whittaker (Rangers)
Barry Bannan (Aston Villa)
Scott Brown (Celtic)
Craig Bryson (Derby)
Don Cowie (Cardiff)
James McArthur (Wigan)
Matt Phillips (Blackpool)
Shaun Maloney (Wigan)
David Goodwillie (Blackburn)
Craig Mackail-Smith (Brighton)
Kenny Miller (Cardiff)
Johnny Russell (Dundee Utd)