GORDON STRACHAN’S Scotland squad mirrors many club teams across the country as younger players earn promotions to the senior sides.
Leigh Griffiths, Tony Watt, Ryan Jack and Stuart Armstrong travelled to Zagreb today for a World Cup qualifier having impressed at under-21 level. Realistically, they are being assessed with Euro 2016 in mind.
Scotland’s attempt to qualify for Brazil 2014 is over and Strachan is attempting to rebuild by calling up the backbone of the under-21 side. Griffiths in particular has looked sharp in training with the full squad this week, according to coach Stuart McCall. The plan is to be as positive as possible in the Maksimir Stadium on Friday night and attempt to pull off an unlikely result against the technically gifted Croatians. But that will be conducted with one eye on the future.
“We’ve brought in five or six lads from the under-21s to integrate them and make them feel part of it,” explained McCall. “They are going to be the future so we’ve got to try and get them comfortable in this environment. Everything up to Friday will be positive from the coaching staff – integrating the young boys and helping them.
“At the moment, we’re focused on the players here, how fresh they are and who needs sharpening up. Then we’ll look to Friday. In the long run, we have four or five boys who are with us now who will be the future for Scotland going forward. They will know that, I’m sure. One or two who are not here have had injuries and are in the twilight of their careers. Some boys in the squad now will be part and parcel of the future, hopefully going upwards. This is all great experience.
“The bottom line in football is that you can build and prepare and train, but it comes down to what happens in matches. We don’t want to look on the down side about having a bad experience and how much it can knock young players. We can’t focus on that. We can only focus on how good we can be.
“If we went and pulled off a result in Croatia it would give everybody a lift, but to do that everyone’s got to be at the top of their game. We’re under no illusions how difficult it’s going to be but why can’t Allan McGregor in goal have the best night he’s ever had? For this one night, you want to be their equal. You maybe have a one in ten chance of matching players better than you, so we need to think Friday night is going to be our night. Hopefully our players are going to be the best they can be.
“I understand the outlook from everybody else. As coaches and players, we can’t go into this game without any negativity or trepidation. After 28 goals on loan at Hibs in the campaign just ended, many are excited by Griffiths’ potential at international level. Parent club, Wolverhampton Wanderers, want the striker back after the summer break and he will play in England’s League One next season unless he can negotiate a return to Easter Road. His stock is high at the minute and would rise further should he make an impact against Croatia.
“Some of the inexperienced lads have done well,” continued McCall. “Leigh Griffiths has been in there like he’s been with us all the time. He’s got no worries, just goes and plays the game and scores goals. He’s looked really fresh. One or two other young kids have been the same. There’s no good coming here in fear. You need to come and reproduce your club form. That’s what you’re here for.
“I think that’s what the gaffer’s after. Just give everything you’ve got. We’ll play from a shape but he wants it to come from the heart, be really hard to beat and play with an energy and a desire.
“When we first came in we talked about eliminators and people who could beat players and we’ve got them. We also need to be hard to beat, first and foremost, especially on Friday night. It will be a difficult night if we don’t defend as well as we can.”
Jack and Armstrong are now key players at Aberdeen and Dundee United and, although their international promotion surprised many, they are expected to become regulars within the Scotland set-up. Watt is already famous for scoring against Barcelona in the Champions League, but the young Celtic striker is likely to be more than just a one-hit wonder.
Strachan is keen to nurture from within where possible, akin to Scottish clubs who have been forced to use players from within their own academies. Playing Croatia away from home in the baking June heat will be as a big a test for any player, be he experienced or novice. The Croatian coach Igor Stimac is chasing automatic qualification for next summer’s World Cup and his country are level on points with Belgium at the top of qualifying Group A.
“I understand it looks like the toughest game we could get at this time of the year,” said McCall. “Some people finished playing three or four weeks ago and we’ve had a lot of experienced call-offs. There are genuine injuries, like both Fletchers, Gary Caldwell, Scott Brown, and Charlie Adam is suspended. We’ve lost experience. We do have quiet players and they’re going to have to stand up. We have players who you just need to encourage.”