IT ISN’T often a game against England provides the most obvious opportunity to introduce an international novice for the reason that the stakes are not quite so high.
Gordon Strachan yesterday admitted that the Group C clash with Ireland next Friday “kind of blows away” the friendly with Scotland’s greatest rivals four days later.
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Both games are being held at Celtic Park but only one of them can improve Scotland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2016. It is why the clash with England
felt like an afterthought yesterday as Strachan announced his 27-man squad, raising some eyebrows with the inclusion of 20-year-old Rangers midfielder Lewis Macleod.
While it is unusual to include a player from the second tier in Scotland, it is not a departure from Strachan’s policy of selecting up and coming talent in his squads. He did it most recently with Ryan Gauld. The 18-year-old Sporting Lisbon midfielder was included last month for the qualifying games with Georgia and Poland.
Although Gauld did not, in the end, feature in either match, Strachan did not rule out the possibility of Macleod playing a part later this month. If so, it seems more likely that his opportunity will come against the Auld Enemy, who visit Scotland for the first time since 1999.
Experimentation will not be high on the list of Strachan’s priorities against Ireland in a game that could be key to Scotland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2016. Ireland are behind Group D leaders Poland on goal difference with seven points from three games while Scotland, on four points, are in fourth place behind Germany, also on goal difference.
Strachan emphasised that Macleod and others who are brought in at such a tender age are not just along for the ride. He recalled the occasion when the then Dundee United left-back Andrew Robertson was called up for the first time, principally as an educational exercise, and almost played himself into the team.
“If things go well this week you never know what might happen,” said Strachan. “I remember young Andrew Robertson joined us for an afternoon and played 11 versus 11 to work on certain things. After the game finished I asked the coaches who played well and, apart from Scott Brown and James Morrison, he was man of the match.”
Strachan watched Macleod at first hand when he played for Rangers in the Ibrox side’s opening Championship clash against Hearts. It was at the start of a remarkable comeback for Macleod, who missed the second half of last season with a debilitating virus that affected the muscles around his heart.
He has scored seven times in 15 appearances this season, including the winner in last week’s televised League Cup quarter-final clash against St Johnstone. Strachan explained that while he has only seen him play once in the flesh this season, he has watched tapes of his performances and has taken soundings from those he trusts.
Macloed revealed yesterday that he has never met Strachan and ignored a text on Monday night informing him of his inclusion. “I didn’t recognise the number,” he said.
Strachan is relishing the opportunity to work with the young Rangers player. “I saw him in the first game of the season and I caught up with videos and obviously other people watch games,” he said. “So it is easy to find out if a player is playing well. We think it will be good for us to have him along.”
But Strachan knows the most vital objective of this month’s international commitments is not blooding new players. Rather, it is wrestling three points from the fixture with Ireland – although Strachan did struggle to accept a scenario where he had to suffer a “tanking” from England for the guarantee of a win against the Irish when this was offered to him yesterday.
“It kind of blows away the England game, which is great,” noted Strachan, with reference to a clash which sees Martin O’Neill return to Celtic Park, albeit in the away dug-out. Strachan, who succeeded O’Neill at Celtic, suggested such a crucial clash comes at a good time. Scotland have lost only once in ten previous matches.
“When you take over as manager of Scotland, you think ‘right ok, let’s get on a roll, see what we can do’,” he said. “We have got to this point where we can fill the stadium with people who genuinely think, rather than hope, that you are going to win.”
As he stated last month, Strachan is expecting a “British-style” match, where possession statistics will count for little in a furiously contested battle. But he warned against letting the emotion of the occasion cloud
“I have noticed the team who loses their temper first
always loses – and I remember saying this to Celtic players first time I met them,” he said. “It so happens we got two sent-off in my first Old Firm game. We lost our discipline and our focus because we got caught up in that game.
“I have seen it happen in Scotland v England games. People losing their focus because they want to win so badly, or show they want to win so badly – there is a big difference.
“If you want to beat someone so badly then run quicker than them, jump higher than them, run further than them, you don’t have to kick anyone.
“Sometimes I see players thinking ‘the crowd wants me to kick somebody’. Well, the manager doesn’t want you to kick anyone. Your team-mates don’t want you to kick anyone. They want you to stay on your feet. They want you to be there at the end of the game.”
THE CAP FITS...
IF Rangers midfielder Lewis Macleod is capped against the Republic of Ireland he will join a select group who have won Scotland caps outside the domestic top flight in the post-war era. They include:
Was playing in the fourth tier with Rangers when he won his one and, so far, only cap. Appeared as a late substitute in Scotland’s 3-1 win over Australia in a friendly at Easter Road in 2012.
The midfielder won two of his 29 caps while a First Division player following Dundee United’s relegation from the top flight in 1995. He played against Sweden and Finland in autumn of that year before moving to the English Premiership to join Blackburn.
Made a goalscoring debut against Ecuador in the Kirin Cup in Japan in May 1995 in the same season that he helped Raith Rovers clinch a League Cup and First Division championship double. Had to wait six years for his next Scotland appearance and went on to win 25 caps.
Long-serving goalkeeper who went to three World Cups and was first capped while playing for Partick Thistle in the First Division towards the end of season 1975-76. Helped Thistle win promotion that season and won the remainder of his 53 caps in the top flight.
Made his Scotland debut as a player with Second Division Falkirk in a 4-0 win over Northern Ireland in October 1959. Moved to Tottenham later that month where he enjoyed an outstanding career, notably helping them win the league and FA Cup double in 1960-61. Tragically killed by lightning aged 27.
A double winner of the Scottish Cup with Clyde in the 1950s, Ring won a handful of his 12 caps during the Shawfield club’s Second Division title-winning season in 1956-57.
Nicknamed “The Wee Prime Minster”, McMillan won his first cap as a member of Airdrieonians’ Division B title-winning side in April 1955, being on the wrong side of a 7-2 hammering by England.
Won all three of his caps in 1948 as a member of the successful East Fife side which won a League Cup
and Division B double that season.
Scored two goals in two games for Scotland while playing in Division B with Airdrie in 1946-47, helping the Broomfield side win promotion that season.
Goalkeepers: Craig Gordon (Celtic), David Marshall (Cardiff City), Matt Gilks (Burnley)
Defenders: Phil Bardsley (Stoke City), Christophe Berra (Ipswich Town), Craig Forsyth (Derby County), Gordon Greer (Brighton and Hove Albion), Grant Hanley (Blackburn Rovers), Russell Martin (Norwich City), Andrew Robertson (Hull City), Steven Whittaker (Norwich City)
Midfielders: Ikechi Anya (Watford), Barry Bannan (Crystal Palace), Scott Brown (Celtic), Craig Bryson (Derby County), Chris Burke (Nottingham Forest), Graham Dorrans (West Bromwich Albion), Darren Fletcher (Manchester United), Shaun Maloney (Wigan Athletic), James McArthur (Crystal Palace), James Morrison (West Bromwich Albion), Charlie Mulgrew (Celtic)
Strikers: Steven Fletcher (Sunderland), Lewis Macleod (Rangers) Stevie May (Sheffield Wednesday), Chris Martin (Derby County), Steven Naismith (Everton)