PRESSURE last night grew on Craig Levein to consider making peace with Steven Fletcher after the striker expressed willingness to return to the Scotland fold.
Fletcher’s one-word response to a question posed by a fan on Twitter has seen him rated at odds-on by one bookmaker to play for his country again during the current World Cup qualifying campaign.
The exiled striker caused much excitement among Scotland fans yesterday when he replied “yes” when asked via his own Twitter account whether he would “pull on your Scotland jersey next month if Craig Levein asked you to come back?”
The striker was answering fans’ questions after scoring for Sunderland in his side’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool on Saturday. It was his third goal for Martin O’Neill’s side in just two league games since moving from Wolverhampton Wanders in August.
On a good weekend for Scottish strikers, Jordan Rhodes scored twice for Blackburn Rovers as they overcame Bristol City with of a 5-3 win. Rhodes also found himself at the centre of a controversy last week after being handed only 36 minutes of playing time for Scotland in the opening two qualifying games against Serbia and Macedonia. Quoted in yesterday’s newspapers, Levein said Rhodes “isn’t ready to play international football”.
Fletcher’s prolonged absence from the Scotland team is due to a situation that developed with the manager after he was left in the stands for a match against Czech Republic, when Scotland infamously played with no strikers. He was then overlooked for a friendly against the Faroe Islands the following month.
Yesterday is the first time the striker has been drawn on the subject of playing for Scotland since an interview last year in which he stated he felt the situation “is out of my hands”. He added: “I’ve read him [Levein] saying I have to make myself available for selection again but I feel I never made myself unavailable”.
The stand-off dates back to when Fletcher texted a member of Levein’s backroom staff with a request not to be considered for selection for a Carling Nations Cup game against Northern Ireland in February last year. He has not played for Scotland since starting the 3-0 friendly defeat against Sweden in August 2010.
In a bid to draw a line under the subject, Levein said he had “closed the door” on the player in August, as Scotland prepared to begin a new qualifying campaign. However, a pair of disappointing draws against Serbia and Macedonia in which Scotland scored just one goal has led to the player’s exclusion becoming an issue again.
The frustration felt by Scotland fans has been compounded by Fletcher’s impressive start to his new career at Sunderland since leaving Wolverhampton Wanderers for £12 million. That was the highest transfer fee ever commanded by a Scottish footballer.
Despite Fletcher’s brief contribution to the debate yesterday, The Scotsman understands that it is very unlikely that Levein will accede to the demands of many Scotland fans and initiate contact with the striker. The manager contends that Fletcher has been given more than enough opportunity to let it be known that he is available again after ruling himself out for the game against Northern Ireland 20 months ago.
According to Levein, the message that the striker wished to return to the fold was never relayed and left him with only one conclusion to draw – Fletcher did not wish to play for his country.
“As far as I am concerned the door is closed and we’ll move on without him,” said Levein in August. That might have been accepted by the Tartan Army were it not for the player’s fine form in England and also Scotland’s own struggles in front of goal. Levein’s side were booed off after both the 0-0 draw with Serbia last Saturday and the 1-1 draw with Macedonia on Tuesday night. Those results have left Scotland with a considerable task ahead to qualify from Group A. They have also placed Levein under further pressure.
Scottish bookmaker McBookie.com now make Fletcher odds-on to play at some point in the World Cup qualifying campaign. But the firm offers odds-against on him playing in next month’s match against Wales in Cardiff. Many view this fixture as one that Levein’s side must win if he is to remain in his post.
Sunderland manager O’Neill, who did not want to be drawn into the row between Fletcher and Levein, yesterday praised his striker to the hilt. He also defended the transfer fee the club paid for Fletcher after many had raised eyebrows, including Levein.
“So far, he has been absolutely terrific, I am just delighted with him,” said the former Celtic manager.
“I couldn’t be more pleased. All sorts of figures seem to be bandied around. I heard today that we paid £14 million for him. It was £12 million but he seems to be worth every single penny of it.
“I am just pleased for him. It’s nice for the crowd to take to him at this minute. It will give him a boost of confidence as much as anything else, but goals, of course, are very pleasing.”