WE need to talk about Steven. When Steven Fletcher was on his self-imposed international exile and scoring freely for Sunderland, he was considered the panacea for all Scotland’s ills.
Now that the 28-year-old is a permanent fixture for Gordon Strachan’s side while enduring the leanest time for club and country, he is suddenly being painted as the root of all problems.
Every faltering team needs a fall guy. Scotland are certainly a struggling side as the Euro 2016 finals appear ever more remote. The 3-2 reverse to Germany, following on from the grizzly loss in Georgia, made for the nation’s first double-header double-defeat since Gordon Strachan’s initial competitive outings two-and-a-half years ago. Fletcher, meanwhile, provides the perfect profile to be fitted up for the role of scapegoat.
He is, after all, the striker that has only struck in two of his 23 international appearances. His hat-trick in the 6-1 win over Gibraltar six months ago may have made him the first Scotland player to net a triple for 46 years. But it did nothing to stem the growing disquiet over the fact that his efforts for the country’s cause seems at odds with his deployment. He is Scotland’s sole attacking spearhead, yet he is playmaker not plunderer.
The drop-Fletcher-for-Leigh-Griffiths campaign now gathering pace might also be part fuelled by the perception of the Sunderland man as Flash Fletch. Whether it is his £260,000 Lamborghini, allegedly abusing a rickshaw driver as a prank during a holiday, or reportedly flying first class while his pals remained in economy as they headed out to his Las Vegas stag do, he has hardly appeared the most grounded individual.
Yet, such can make him ripe for criticism not commensurate with his contribution. A number of Scotland supporters seemed to take exception to a broadcast interview he gave in the wake of Monday’s spirited display against the Germans.
“I’m doing what I can. I’m running around,” he said. “If they’re not happy with that, it’s down to them. Obviously I’d love to score goals but If I’m not getting a chance, I’m not going to put it away. He [Gordon Strachan] is the boss, he picks the team. I’m happy he’s picking me.”
Hardly a humble or angst-ridden rendering of his inability to find the net at international level; with Fletcher’s comments taken as him blaming others for his goalscoring travails. However, the fact is that he may have a point. He performed well against the world champions the other night, and there are few instances throughout this qualifying campaign of the forward fluffing opportunities.
Scotland assistant Mark McGhee knows all about the art of scoring goals. He had little of Fletcher’s deftness but possessed a directness, a bustle and craving to bury the ball in the net that his modern-day contemporary appears to lacks. Far from Fletcher being the absorbed character his conspicuous consumption off the park would suggest, McGhee believes the player isn’t wrapped up in his own world enough on it.
“Should he score more? I don’t know,” says McGhee. “Sometimes it’s just about the service he gets. Could he score more? Definitely, yeah. Steven is a terrific player with a lovely balance about him. He has that quality first touch, he has vision, he can play people in and he keeps the ball under pressure the way a lot of the Germans do. He keeps the continuity of the possession. So he’s very significant that way.
“One of the things, though, that he has to think about is goals and maybe being a little bit more selfish in terms of the areas of the park he runs into. He’s always willing to go wide or drop deep. As a striker myself I would want to be a bit more selfish and have people run into those areas for me so I can be in a better position to score goals. So we’ll maybe have to talk to him about these things and work with him. But he does have the ability.
“It’s finding ways to help him – and the team – get into areas and be in areas where he can score more goals. We talked about the significance of the stat saying we had no shots against Georgia. But Wales are top of their group with nine goals. I don’t know how many shots Wales have had, but it will not be 50. It will be 12 or 13 and half the goals are scored by Gareth Bale. So the no shots thing offers a false impression. We set up to stop teams from shooting.
“Fletcher not getting a goal is not the be all and end all. We need a goal and if Fletcher keeps the ball and gets us a goal some other way that’s fine.
“If Fletcher could get more goals that would be great for him and great for us. But I don’t think we should get hung up on that because he does make a contribution and if you are talking about guys like Kris Boyd or Jordan Rhodes, they are fantastic finishers. But they might not link play the way Fletch would, or even Chris Martin. He will make a huge contribution without scoring goals, so we shouldn’t get too carried away.
“Sometimes the timing of our matches is right for certain players and sometimes it’s not, significantly in some cases. We do need a goalscorer. If Steven Fletcher comes into the games in form and with confidence then we can benefit. So it’s all about timing.”
The timing of this latest double-header was not good for Fletcher, frankly. He has started only once for Sunderland this season, and scored only once. In fact, since his Gibraltar hat-trick six months ago he has found the net on just two occasions.
None of this is to say that he doesn’t remain the most capable player to lead the line for Strachan. It is more a reflection on the paucity of alternatives. Griffiths, McGhee acknowledged yesterday, is moulding himself into a serious one, though. The Celtic striker has bagged 17 goals since Scotland’s rout of Gibraltar. Undeniably, he cannot knit together the forward play as Fletcher can. But he has been sniffing out goals – albeit at a much lower level – in a manner that is threatening to seem alien to Fletcher. Indeed, if it weren’t for Scotland’s deficiencies elsewhere and the attendant need to play with only one up front, Fletcher and Griffiths would seem an ideal pairing. As it is, Griffiths must remain behind Fletcher in the pecking order.
“Leigh is an option and has become more of an option this season,” McGhee said. “We have been impressed with the work Celtic have done with Leigh. He is finding himself in better areas with better goalscoring positions. At some point we will benefit from that. But at this point Gordon judged Fletcher is still ahead of him. But he is getting closer.”
Meanwhile, those days of 2012, when an absent Fletcher seemed the saviour of the Scottish side, seem all too far away.