A CLAMOUR for Stuart Armstrong to be given full international recognition has inevitably followed the midfielder’s outstanding start to his Celtic career. Scotland coach Gordon Strachan can offer five reasons why affording the 22-year-old such an opportunity is not a straightforward task.
The forthcoming midweek friendly with Northern Ireland, and the European Championship qualifier against tiny Gibraltar the following weekend, have been earmarked by many as a perfect double-header to ease the Scotland under-21 captain into the senior set-up. But Strachan, pictured right, cuts down that expectation by giving due reference to his central midfield quintet.
“If you’re a central midfield player it’s very hard [to get in],” the Scotland manager said. “Charlie Mulgrew was magnificent against the Republic of Ireland. Scott Brown’s always great. James McArthur’s starring for Crystal Palace. Darren Fletcher’s been terrific, plus there is James Morrison. Those five have been first class over the last two years so you have to be better than them. That’s the standard you have to come up to. You can’t just be better than somebody.
“[Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven] have played three or four games [for Celtic]. You wait for a while but you have to remember that in September both of them were left out of the Dundee United first team. So just because they’ve pitched up at Celtic doesn’t make them superstars, but by the same token those two lads have been in the squad before.
“It’s hard to pick young lads when they aren’t playing for their first teams. But it’s great to see over the last few weeks that they’re playing in front of 60,000 people against teams like Inter Milan. That’s great for their education. Charlie Mulgrew, through playing Champions League football, has come on leaps and bounds. Some clubs can’t give you that, no matter how good they are or how good the coaching is. It’s invaluable when they come to play in the national side.”
Mulgrew, through injury, will not feature against the Irish at Hampden on 25 March, nor when Gibraltar play at the national stadium four days later. However, his loss comes just when it looks possible that Darren Fletcher could once more make himself invaluable to the national cause – on the park once more.
As a model professional and humbling patriot, the midfielder has always been that off the field, a fact true even when he was laid low with a bowel condition that threatened his football career. His restoration to full health did not bring a return to the Manchester United first team, but a January move to West Bromich Albion has allowed the 31-year-old to become a regular, and important, performer in the English Premier League once more.
His club manager, Tony Pulis, last week described Fletcher, who has made five appearances for the Midlands side and been installed as club captain, as “fantastic” and “a proper old-fashioned player”. “He looks after the dressing room,” Pulis said. “There is not that many people around in the game today who are proper characters. He just loves football. He is well into the video analysis. Everything we do in reviewing matches and preparing the team, he wants to know about it. The group love him.”
The affection and respect for him in Scotland circles has never wavered and Strachan, who watched him in West Brom’s midweek defeat at Villa Park, is certain that Fletcher is ready to force himself into contention to add to the 66 caps he earned across more than a decade at Old Trafford.
“He was terrific the other night. All he needed was games. It was a real derby, with that nervousness, but it didn’t affect him in any way. I don’t think it was hard [for him to deal with not getting a game for Scotland]. Life’s so rosy just playing. If you think you’re not going to play again and suddenly you’re involved, you’re tackling, heading, moaning and groaning, then you’re alive.
“He also understands he’s been out the picture for two years and other people have taken that role. There’s no doubt about it, when he stands in the tunnel beside you, we all feel a lot better. He is a giving person and has a lot to give.”
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