ALTHOUGH he stopped short of confirming whether either or indeed both would be called up by Scotland later this month, Stuart McCall is heartened by the seamless way Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong have adapted to life at Celtic.
The Scotland coach was speaking yesterday at Hampden Park, where he was due for meetings with manager Gordon Strachan and other coaching staff member, Mark McGhee.
The three men are deliberating who features in the squad for the forthcoming games against Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. The first, a friendly, is a chance for Strachan to experiment before not just the qualifying clash with minnows Gibralter, but also the crucial clash with Ireland in June. Following Armstrong and Mackay-Steven’s impressive contribution to new club Celtic both domestically and in Europe since signing from Dundee United four weeks ago, many expect the pair to return to the Scotland set-up.
Mackay-Steven has earned one cap for Scotland when coming on as a substitute against United States in November 2013. Armstrong, meanwhile, has been named in a squad, but is yet to feature.
“Gary and Stuart’s impact at Celtic will certainly have caught Gordon’s eye,” said McCall. “When we played against England, all of their players were playing at the top level of the Premier League and mostly in Europe.
“The Celtic boys – and also Steven Naismith – are playing in Europe and it definitely helps you. Gary and Stuart have hit the ground running and performed well in Europe, so that will be to their advantage. McCall has impressed upon Mackay-Steven and Armstrong the need to maintain their current form in order to remain in the Celtic first-team equation for the rest of the season. He regards the return from injury of Celtic winger James Forrest as a boost for Scotland and a further test for Mackay-Steven and Armstrong as they seek to secure regular first-team football.
“The big challenge for the two of them is to play regular for Celtic between now and the end of the season,” said McCall. “You have guys like Forrest and [Kris] Commons in those areas – both good players. James just needs a run as he has the ability.
“But Gary and Stuart couldn’t have started any better. Their confidence will be high and it’s a bonus for Scotland.
“In saying that, they did well at United too.” he added. “But it will be good for their belief that they can go to a big club and handle it. Both have been in squads before and they are quiet, shy lads. When you go to the Old Firm, you need to be careful you don’t get swallowed up. I noticed Scott Brown was getting Gary to do an [initiation] song when he signed. Sometimes it’s about character. It’s big leap because you have to win every game as the pressure is higher. ”
On the subject of first-choice goalkeeper, McCall is simply happy he is not the one who must pick between David Marshall, Allan McGregor and Craig Gordon later this month.
When we get the likes of Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven playing for Celtic in Europe, and not only playing, playing well and standing out in those games, it benefits themStuart McCall
“The goalkeeping situation is a case of saying ‘All the best’ to Gordon and [goalkeeper coach] Jim Stewart,” said McCall. “But it’s a nice dilemma. Marsh has been outstanding for Scotland. He’s never let us down. Allan McGregor is in the same category, playing at the highest level in England. Craig has been outstanding – probably Celtic’s best player this season.”
l Tickets for Scotland v Northern Ireland, at Hampden Park on Wednesday 25 March, kick-off 7.45pm, are just £15 for adults and £5 for children. Visit www.scottishfa.co.uk or call 0844 875 1873.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS