Alan Pattullo: Kenny Miller v Jordan Rhodes fires up our next controversy
THE storm concerning Ian Black is a red herring when considering the state of Scotland’s health ahead of another World Cup campaign. The Rangers midfielder will not be involved in the forthcoming games against Serbia and Macedonia, that much seems certain.
Next month, when Craig Levein’s side set off on their latest perilous journey, Black will be between appointments with Elgin City and Annan Athletic.
The controversy does not so much hinge on whether the Rangers midfielder is good enough to play for Scotland – clearly he is at this early stage of his lower league adventures – but whether he should have been called into a squad that had to be viewed in the context of next month’s World Cup qualifiers.
The midfielder is the 57th player to be used by Levein since the manager took charge in December 2009 and he is probably about 56th in line for a place in the next squad, just in front of Lee Wallace.
As much as the midfielder seemed sincere when he voiced a belief that he can stake a claim for another call-up next month, Levein can ill-afford to be deflected from his purpose by inviting further broiling over the inclusion of a Third Division player.
In any case, it seems almost inevitable that a fresh row will have developed by then as he resists calls to hand Jordan Rhodes the No 9 jersey again. Providing Kenny Miller can prove his fitness at Vancouver Whitecaps, Levein insists the older, more experienced man remains the preferred option for the lone striker’s role in the manager’s established 4-1-4-1 formation.
The bullish Levein has relished mounting a defence of Black but sought to explain away the jeering prompted by his arrival on the park with a jocular remark: “Those Hibs supporters, eh?” Will these be his last words on the subject? Perhaps. They will not be the last words spoken by other observers in the football sphere, many of whom joined in the condemnation being heaped on those Scotland fans who chose to vent their spleen at Black – or, perhaps more accurately, at Levein – with a volley of boos on Wednesday evening. “Didn’t bother me being booed tonight – was expecting it – but to boo Ian Black was a bit harsh,” tweeted Ryan McGowan, the Hearts player who made his first appearance for Australia on Wednesday.
The Scotland manager must have expected the reaction but chose to blood Black in any case. His handling of the entire affair meant that an article in the match programme from Wednesday night held even greater interest.
An interview with Sir Alex Ferguson penned by Glenn Gibbons is guaranteed to provide fascination but the Manchester United manager’s comments on the stand-off between Steven Fletcher and Levein were especially intriguing. Ferguson considered Scotland’s greatest need to be a “quality” striker as well as a “really top-class central defender”, adding that it was a “great shame” that Levein and Fletcher have not been able to agree a “compromise”. He concluded that it would be “good for the country if he [Fletcher] were available for selection”.
This week’s row over Black says everything about the Scottish football team’s perverse ability to make things harder for themselves. The manager won’t pick a striker valued at £15 million and this self-defeating folly is compounded by the unnecessary storm provoked by the calling-up of a Third Division player, one who isn’t likely to play a part in the forthcoming campaign.
While Black is left to get on with life in the Third Division, it is already possible to anticipate the next great debate prior to the opening qualifier against Serbia. Indeed, it has already begun. It need not require Levein to break bread with Fletcher in order to ensure there is a “quality” striker at his disposal next month. As well as scoring a well-taken goal, Rhodes exhibited enough attributes to suggest he is equipped to step into such a high-pressure environment, although Levein sounds dispiritingly resistant to this notion.
Even prior to the game against Australia, he nixed the idea that Rhodes might stake a claim for a starting place at Hampden Park on 8 September, although he did express the hope that the striker was “brilliant” enough to create selection difficulties for him.
Levein appears wedded to the idea of Miller as No 1 striker even though the player is beginning a new life in Canada following a mediocre season with Cardiff City.
Harsh though it sounds, few were lamenting his absence on Wednesday as Rhodes married Miller’s good movement with a goal-poacher’s instinct, something the Vancouver Whitecaps man, for all his talents, has not built his reputation on.
While brilliant might be a slightly over-enthusiastic word to use when recalling Rhodes’ full debut, his display certainly deserves to be described as more than promising. Now 22 and about to embark on his first season in the Championship with Huddersfield Town, he is an admittedly difficult-to-assess mix of inexperience and undoubted finishing prowess. From the very first moments of what has to be acknowledged was a low-key friendly at Easter Road he looked like he belongs in the Scotland No 9 jersey, one another Jordan once wore to great effect.
It is interesting to note that Joe also made his Scotland debut at the age of 22, although he was beginning to establish himself at the very top level of English football at the time. Indeed, just days earlier he had played for Leeds United in their 1973 Cup-Winners’ Cup final loss to Milan. Before the end of the same year he had left an indelible mark on his international career by coming off the bench to head the winner against Czechoslovakia as Scotland qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time in 16 years.
Who knows if Rhodes can have a similarly positive effect at the start of another World Cup quest. It would be comforting to think he will be given the chance. Levein is not in the habit of providing reassurance and neither does he tend to bow to public opinion. However, Rhodes has surely done enough to be handed the title of Miller’s deputy, at the very least.
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