McLeish described the recruitment of Manchester United midfielder Scott McTominay, news of which was confirmed last week, as his “first triumph” since returning to the job. Scotland fans will hope there are plenty more to come on the field but it’s an impressive first result for McLeish as he attempts to continue winning over the Tartan Army.
McLeish’s re-appointment might have been met with an underwhelmed response from certain quarters. However, he will always retain affection in fans’ hearts for leading Scotland to a 1-0 over France in the Parc des Princes 11 years ago and to the brink of qualification for Euro 2008.
He has started off a new era in charge with an impressive first statement of intent following a successful pitch for a player who was also wanted by England. McLeish was determined the blizzard brought in by the “beast from the east” storm would not de-rail his efforts to convince McTominay, who was brought up in Lancashire but has a Scottish father, to sign up.
With the Met Office urging people not to travel unless strictly necessary, McLeish clearly viewed his journey to Manchester as one of strict national importance. It certainly proved worthwhile ahead of the forthcoming friendlies with Costa Rica and Hungary.
“I felt very chuffed with myself about that one because I did a lot of travelling that night to get to Manchester,” McLeish recalled yesterday. “It was a wicked night with all of the snow.”
The manager admitted he was taken aback with just how clear McTominay was in his own mind about choosing Scotland. Looking into his eyes told him all McLeish needed to know about the 21-year-old.
“I was actually very surprised by my first exchange with Scott,” he said. “He just came straight out and said, ‘I want to play for Scotland.’”
McLeish didn’t want “to force anything down his throat” but found Old Trafford manager Jose Mourinho a very helpful ally. As presumably was Sir Alex McLeish, his old manager at Aberdeen.
Mourinho initially wanted to wait to break news of McTominay’s decision after last Monday’s fixture against Crystal Palace, which Manchester United won 3-2 after being 2-0 down. But the information had already leaked out.
McTominay was taken off at half-time against Palace with McLeish in attendance but returned to the side for Saturday’s 2-1 win over Liverpool.
“Scott had intimated he definitely wanted to play for Scotland,” explained McLeish. “I told him I would phone him back the next week for a definitive answer. I just wanted to look in his eyes and see if he did want to play for Scotland.
“But there was no aggression from me. I wasn’t going there to plead with him or try to coerce him into playing for Scotland. I just wanted to ask him the question. I told him I wanted to pick him for these internationals, so do you want to play for Scotland? He said: ‘Yes I want to play for Scotland’.”
McLeish cautioned against expecting too much from a player with only 19 first-team appearances to his name.
“He’s not got all the answers,” he said. “He’s 21. He’s a young guy learning the game and we have to be patient with young guys.
“But my first game for Scotland was at 21 and I realised right away that I had to retain possession. I knew if you lose the ball in international football you might not get another game. One mistake and you retire with one cap saying, ‘I’m happy, I got a cap!’”
McLeish has challenged McTominay as well as the other new call-ups to cement their place in the squad. Based as he is in west London, McLeish has seen a lot of Fulham in recent times and so was well acquainted with the qualities of midfield pair Tom Cairney and Kevin McDonald, both of whom have made a return to the Scotland set-up.
McLeish admitted he was less familiar with Oli McBurnie, on whom he appears to be pinning his goalscoring hopes.
The striker has struck five times in his last six games for Barnsley and won the Sky Bet Championship player of the month in February. One glaring and perhaps worrying detail is that the four strikers in the latest squad haven’t an international goal between them.
McLeish acknowledged that two of them, Matt Phillips and Ryan Christie, are not even out-and-out strikers. This leaves Jason Cummings, who is struggling to hold down a first-team place at Rangers, and McBurnie. “We have not seen much of Oli,” said McLeish. “He has come late in the day. I have had to rely on information. I have seen the last three or four Barnsley videos and he looks as if he has got something, and has got a character about him.”