Scotland manager Gordon Strachan has admitted he faces a dilemma over the captaincy of his side following the return to full health and regular first-team football of Darren Fletcher.
Strachan refused to give any clues as to who will wear the armband at Hampden for tonight’s international challenge match against Northern Ireland and Sunday’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Gibraltar.
In a break from tradition, the team captain did not join Strachan in facing the media at yesterday’s pre-match press conference, with Everton forward Steven Naismith handed that duty instead.
That backed up Strachan’s claim that he is yet to decide whether Scott Brown will retain the captaincy he held during Fletcher’s lengthy absence battling the bowel condition ulcerative colitis.
Since Fletcher’s return to the Scotland squad last year, he and Brown have never been selected in the same starting line-up.
“I’ve got a hard decision to make,” said Strachan. “At this moment, I haven’t picked the team, so I can’t pick a captain. Once I pick the team, I’ll have an idea.”
Celtic captain Brown has skippered Scotland in his last 13 appearances for the national team and the 29-year-old has thrived in the role, proving a hugely influential figure in the progress achieved by Strachan.
Fletcher has made just one start under Strachan so far. That was when Brown was absent through injury and Fletcher was named captain for the opening Euro 2016 qualifier against Germany last September.
That was the 24th time that Fletcher had led his country. Only six men in history have done so more often – George Young (48), Billy Bremner (38), Gary McAllister (33), Barry Ferguson (28), Graeme Souness (27) and Roy Aitken (27).
Fletcher is now pushing hard for a return to Strachan’s starting line-up on a regular basis, having revitalised his career with a move from Manchester United to West Bromwich Albion at the start of last month.
The 31-year-old was immediately appointed club captain by West Brom manager Tony Pulis and has earned widespread praise for his performances for his new club.
“I think Darren is happier in himself now, which is understandable,” observed Strachan.
“He has played ten or 15 games this season and is enjoying life.
“He has answered a few questions by playing all those games. I saw him a couple of weeks ago at Aston Villa and he was terrific, even though West Brom lost. I’ve been lucky during his absence that I’ve got Scott Brown, James McArthur, James Morrison and Charlie Mulgrew.
“In the Republic of Ireland game, Mulgrew was as good as anyone in there. So we have good players in midfield.
“There is a physical and mental side to it for Darren but he has dealt with that. He has decided what his career is and that it’s not with Manchester United any more. He doesn’t want to be a sub, he wanted to do something about it.
“You can, when you leave Man United, go on and create a new career for yourself.
“Some find it difficult, some get on with it and create a new career. That’s what Darren is doing now.
“Tony Pulis, apart from being a good coach, knows good players. Getting good people around you is the secret. I got on all right after I left Man United as a player. I had good players around me and good people. Football players just like playing football.
“Darren has got a hunger and a pride. It’s not easy to leave United. It’s one of the best clubs in the world, if not the best.
“So there’s a point when you think: ‘Is this it?’. But then you realise there’s more to life and your career can continue. There is another world out there.”
There is the possibility that Strachan could hand Fletcher and Brown just one game each over the next five days as he contemplates rotating his squad.
“I’m trying to make sure everybody gets involved in the games,” added Strachan. “I want to be fair on the club managers.
“I know the system, the players know the system. I have other decisions to make, not just the one about who is captain. Who’s the goalie? Who’s going to be the main one up front? Who’s going to be the wide players? They are smashing decisions to have to make.”
Strachan, meanwhile, was reluctant to comment on the omission of Real Madrid midfielder Jack Harper from the Scotland under-19 squad for their European qualifiers in Austria this week.
Scotland under-19 coach Ricky Sbragia described Harper as a “luxury” player and said he had opted for a “physical side and runners” instead.
“I’m not involved in that at all,” said Strachan. “I let the other guys get on with it. I’ve no idea if it’s physical or whatever.”
But Strachan did suggest that the stature of club Harper plays for should have no automatic bearing on whether he is selected by Scotland.
“Has anyone seen him play?,” added Strachan. “I’ve seen a few people at Chelsea who never get a game anywhere.
“They go on loan somewhere and disappear into no man’s land.”