Gordon Strachan is set to hand the Scotland armband back to Darren Fletcher following Scott Brown’s decision to retire from international football.
The Scotland manager would not be drawn yesterday on who would take the place of Brown, who Strachan said would now revert to the role of “a mate” since they are no longer working together. But it is understood Fletcher is in line to reclaim the captaincy after he was himself replaced by Brown, initially when ruled out by serious illness.
Fletcher is among 27 players picked for next month’s opening Group F World Cup qualifier against Malta. Strachan is preparing for a second full qualifying campaign as manager – and Scotland’s tenth since they last qualified for a major finals.
Strachan has turned to youth to an extent – the squad includes several players who have recently graduated from the Under 21s, including Hibs’ John McGinn and Hearts goalkeeper Jack Hamilton. But the manager’s preparations have been rocked by Brown’s removal from his plans. Strachan denied feeling let down by the 50-times capped player, who has started the season in such good form for Celtic. However, he admitted the midfield, although regarded as Scotland’s strongest department, is “weaker” without Brown.
While Brown’s decision is self-imposed, the absence of Shaun Maloney, another major contributor to recent campaigns, is down to Strachan alone. The Hull City winger’s prominent cameo role in his side’s 2-0 win against Swansea at the weekend meant Strachan was always going to find his absence harder to explain yesterday.
“He needed games,” said Strachan. “He’d like to be playing more games. He came on and scored and made one the other day there. I spoke to him last night and he understands. He was terrific in the last campaign, but the last campaign goes back two years.
“The game has to move on, it can’t stop,” he added. “There were guys who were once mainstays and there could be somebody completely different now. And you’ve got to go ‘what’s the best shape for the ones who are playing well at the moment and who are the future?’ ”
Charlie Mulgrew is another of Strachan’s so-called old guard to have been left out. However, his absence was expected given he has not yet found a new club after the expiry of his Celtic contract.
“I spoke to Charlie last night and he understands totally,” said Strachan. “He didn’t play many games at the end of last season. I told him what he needs to do and he was encouraged by what he heard. Hopefully he’ll get something sorted out in the next week or two.”
Aston Villa striker Ross McCormack, who has become the country’s most expensive ever player since Scotland last played, has not been picked, with Derby County’s Chris Martin again preferred. There are just five players from the English Premier League, 14 from the English Championship.
Nevertheless, Strachan said he was optimistic about the up-coming campaign. But he admitted Scotland need to start producing the type of eye-opening result that could be the difference between qualifying or not. He is likely referring to a victory over England, favourites to win Scotland’s group.
“You think, well, we had 12,000 people away to Gibraltar clapping and singing and saying ‘well done, you gave it a good shot’,” he said, referencing the Tartan Army’s sympathetic response to the failure to qualify for even the Euro 2016 play-offs last time. “And then you meet people in the street who say ‘you’re doing fine’.
“So now we have to take it a stage further and find three more points – a big win – somewhere in the group.”