Aidan Smith: Fletcher is key to Strachan’s success

COLIN Stein’s phone will ring a little less often now. He can look forward to a summer on the bowling green in Linlithgow and, beyond that, the not inconsiderable business of being a Rangers legend.

Steve Fletcher celebrates his second and Scotland's fourth goal against Gibraltar. Picture: John Devlin

But no more will he be asked how it feels to be the last player to score a hat-trick for Scotland, now that Steven Fletcher has matched his feat of 46 long years ago.

Sunday’s win over Gibraltar was a strange affair. A big victory that didn’t feel like one. Six goals and a fair amount of faffing about. A radical formation which no-one saw coming. Those who’d urged Gordon Strachan to front-load the team being first to ask: “Why did he disrupt a settled system?” A goal for Gibraltar destined for quiz-question immortality. And three for the man who hadn’t scored one for six years.

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Fletcher and his lack of goals had become a story. Indeed it had become so much of a story that people would briefly forget this wasn’t a “drought” or a “barren spell” in which the striker had turned up with his face scrubbed and his shirt pressed for every single international played in those six years, only to fluff myriad chances every time.

Steve Fletcher celebrates his second and Scotland's fourth goal against Gibraltar. Picture: John Devlin

There were very good reasons why he didn’t score in 16 of the games which took place between his debut goal against Iceland in 2009 and Sunday’s Euro qualifier. Either Craig Levein didn’t pick him or he didn’t make himself available. The dispute began back in the dark days of 4-6-0 and could have resulted in the player turning his back on Scotland completely, much like Duncan Ferguson. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and thankfully, to kill the story and give Steiny a break, he’s finding the net again.

One of the best things Strachan does as Scotland manager, compared with Levein, is to play Steven Fletcher. To keep playing him and keep trusting him and keep talking him up, even when he’s not scoring, stressing how important he is to the 4-2-3-1. Before the Gibraltar match, Strachan was positively poetic on the subject. “Steven is terrific to watch,” he said. “He is elegant, clever and he brings people into play.” In last Wednesday’s friendly against Northern Ireland he’d shown “lovely movement” and all his game needed was a goal. There’s a fair old gulf between those warm words and Levein’s public utterances on Fletcher, which included the opinion that the £12 million Sunderland paid for his signature had been “quite obscene”.

Strachan, you feel, looks forward to questions about Fletcher. They belong in the realm of what football people instinctively know and understand about the game and what we – journalists, fans, everyone else – may not know. Before fielding such inquiries, the manager usually throws his head back a little, a tic the nation has come to know and love. But on the Fletcher question – which was in danger of becoming The Steven Fletcher Question – the incredulity is merited. The man is class and should be appreciated for his wider contribution to Scotland’s performances.

We have not been this fluid or inventive for years and Fletcher has a lot to do with that. Think back to the best passages of play from the qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 thus far and you’ll find him at their heart. In the opening game against Germany in Dortmund, he cushioned a hard-hit ball with his back to an opponent then swivelled through 180 degrees to send a killing pass into the stride of Ikechi Anya for the equaliser which briefly discombobulated the world champions.

Not all strikers could have pulled off that artful assist and if anything his pass for Anya to set up Shaun Maloney for the strike which levelled the game against Poland in Warsaw was ever better. Once again he had his back to goal; once again it was his control and turn which left his marker a bystander for a 50-yarder which many playmaking midfielders would have been proud to call their own.

These were examples of Fletcher making things happen from deep. He’s not a poacher or a penalty-box striker but then neither is anyone else currently available to Strachan. Against Georgia at Ibrox, he again supplied the pass of the match, this time in the box, a stunning back-heel to put in Anya who should have scored.

This could have been a dress-rehearsal for the Scottish move of the campaign to date, the interplay between Anya, Scott Brown and Maloney against the Republic of Ireland at Celtic Park which ended with the latter’s winning goal. Fletcher wasn’t involved, having gone off injured, but this is the kind of daring Scotland are having to display in order to get out of this tough group and Fletcher remains crucial to the success of the operation.

Sometimes he seems to be trying too hard to paint his masterpiece. Against the Irish, he attempted to caress the ball into the net, applying a touch to a Steven Naismith cross which proved too thin. In the second half against Gibraltar he was again guilty of being too deft and too clever, selecting a knife to cut prosciutto when something weightier was needed to finish off an Alan Hutton cross – but by then he’d already scored to end his “hoodoo”.

His first goal was a scruffy affair which at other times might have concerned him but not when you haven’t popped one in for your country for six years. His second, another header, was pretty straightforward, again not especially Fletcheresque, and if you half-shut your eyes you could almost see Colin Stein rising to put that one away.

The third though had his name written all over it, being virtually passed into the net once he’d worked out just about the only route for the ball to travel, through a thicket of tiring legs. With the greatest respect, Steiny would not have scored that one, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he could pull off a similar trick at the bools. And let’s not forget: back in ’69 he actually scored four.