ONE player, or one issue, can often dominate a cup final build-up.
It has happened again this week but in curious fashion, with Kris Commons’ name taking up almost permanent residence on the back pages of the papers for reasons that have nothing to do with this afternoon’s Scottish Cup decider between his Celtic side and Hibernian.
Commons’ decision to declare himself unavailable for Scotland has been a real talker. The 29-year-old attacker talked about why on the club’s website on Tuesday night, prompting Scotland manager Gordon Strachan to express his acceptance of the “family reasons” and desire to prolong his club career that the player said were behind him quitting. The next day it was Scotland performance director Mark Wotte’s turn to have his say. In a tweet he talked in less than favourable terms of Commons’ “desire” and “ambition”, which led Celtic captain Scott Brown to talk up in defence of his team-mate, citing the intrusion on family life that comes from spending up to three nights a week in hotels before matches. All that was then left was for Neil Lennon do his talking, the Celtic manager stating on Friday he had tried to, eh, talk Commons out of retiring, before being witheringly dismissive of Wotte’s pronouncements on the subject.
The Mansfield-born attacker, who qualified to play for Scotland through his grandmother being born in Dundee, will leave the pitch at the national stadium this afternoon and embark on a very different assignment to those colleagues who will then immediately switch attentions to a World Cup qualifier for Strachan’s side in Croatia. “It is three weeks before we are back in [at Celtic to prepare for a mid-July Champions League qualifier] and I have three little kids who have been wanting my attention,” he said. “I have been away enough this time. I have a three-year-old, a two-year-old, and a five-month-old. This is the most important time for me. When the football season is done I want to spend as much time as I can with my kids. As many footballers do, you are on the road two or three days a week for two games a week. With the Champions League thing we have been all over Europe, in Russia and it has just been hectic. Lisa [his partner] has been watching three kids on her own for practically eight months of the year so it is time for daddy to step up.”
Stepping aside from an international domain in which he earned 12 caps may be regrettable for Commons, but it appears as if the life he loves at Celtic satiates his football needs. The high-octane experiences provided by the Champions League are a world apart from the grind of helping Scotland avoid plumbing ever-new depths. As Lennon pointed out, five years ago Commons was playing in the third tier of the English game, now he is celebrating trophy success at home and savouring the prestige of the ultimate club tournament. Scotland right now is a place for pitiless patriots and, whatever pride Commons derived from “pulling on the jersey” and “always being a Scotland supporter”, his upbringing points to a different impetus in his career.
Commons has featured in three cup finals for Celtic. He helped them win the Scottish Cup two years ago, after being substituted in the League Cup loss to Rangers earlier that season. A year later, he only appeared from the bench for the closing minutes of the final defeat to Kilmarnock in the latter competition. The other day, conversation turned to the former Nottingham Forest, Derby County and Stoke player’s most vivid memories of cup occasions in his younger years. These emphasised the adoptive nature of football with a tartan hue for him. “The Forest and Tottenham final of 1991 and the Tottenham and Arsenal semi-final that year are two that stand out. When I was a young kid I was a big Paul Gascoigne fan and a Forest fan so it was all happening around that time. The one I will never forget is when he got injured in a tackle with Gary Charles, Parks [Garry Parker, Celtic assistant] was playing in that game. Gascoigne smashed him. The free-kick from Stuart Pearce I will never forget and also the free-kick from Gascoigne against David Seaman [in the semi]. You see that and then upstairs, boots on, up on the back yard, pretending that you are who you have been watching. I was doing Stuart Pearce free-kicks, not Gazza tackles.
“I have never met Gazza and I don’t think I would want to. My partner saw him in Dubai and I think he was in a bit of a bad way. You see him on the news and he seems to have his life together one minute then off the rails the next. So I think I would rather not see him.”
Commons is a man who should be commended for having the gumption to offer an honest opinion, irrespective of whether his views might appear blunt and challenging. And it is his willingness to be as expressive on the pitch that makes him the sort of game-changer who could win a cup final. His thoughts on Leigh Griffiths should have the Hibs striker putting a cheque in the post to him.
“I was looking at a few stats the other day from the [English] Premier League and Luis Suarez has had the most effective dribbles. He probably comes into the same kind of category [as Griffiths] where he likes the ball to feet, likes to dribble and shoot from long range and has got a lethal left foot from set pieces,” said Commons. “If you can stop him you can kind of stop their whole attack. If you can stop Luis Suarez, then Liverpool do struggle. On his day, he [Griffiths] can win games on his own, which is a luxury for a manager if you have that kind of player. A big part of what we do this week will be trying to stop him, where he likes to pick the ball up from, and what area he scores his goals from.”
Commons, with 19 goals this season, can score from anywhere, and at any time. Having previously spoken of the need to clinch a double to avoid the season ending as a disappointment, as the final approaches, he is now focused on savouring the experience. “It is the last game, hopefully the sun will be out and the grass will be lush,” he said. “That is stuff I remember when I was eight, nine, ten and I was in the house watching the FA Cup final or any big game when it really matters. They are magical moments you want to be a part of when you’re a kid so to end on a high would be a massive plus and put us into a good summer to get ready for next season.” And in between times, paternity will take priority over playing internationals.