IMAGINE if Gordon Strachan got a tip-off about a Scotland-qualified striker who was pulling up trees in English football, a young guy who scored 40 goals in 45 games for his League One club before earning an £8 million transfer to the Championship, whereupon he scored 30 goals in 50 games and four goals in the six games he has played in the current season while being the subject of a rumoured £6m offer from elsewhere.
You’d imagine that Strachan would be beside himself with excitement if he was offered such a player, but this is not some dreamy scenario. He already has him. The player in question is Jordan Rhodes and the numbers, though improbable, are real. And yet Rhodes represents the most ironic of stories. He is the ruthless finisher that Scotland will not start.
To listen to Strachan yesterday in the wake of a chastening experience against Belgium, Rhodes is apparently going to have wait and wait and wait for a chance to establish himself in this Scotland team. This is typical. Along comes the goal-machine that the nation has craved for so long and he cannot be accommodated.
“Jordan is at his best when he plays with another striker, lots of people round about him and lots of crosses,” said Strachan. “We don’t get that at international football. There is not many teams that do that and we certainly can’t do that because we don’t get enough of the ball to just play in open play with two wide men and two up front and get crosses into the box. We would get counter-attacked all the time. I don’t think there are many teams who play like that. You have Croatia, but they play a narrow four, with full-backs bombing on. It’s very hard to change it just for one person who is playing in the Championship. If you are [Mario] Mandzukic and you are playing at Bayern Munich you might say ‘Hmm, we can do that’. It leaves him, like many people, with a system which doesn’t suit him right now. We have to understand in international football the system doesn’t suit you at times.”
As if to emphasise the point, Strachan reminded us that Rhodes’ team were “fourth bottom of the Championship last year”. They weren’t actually. They were seven off the bottom, but the comment was instructive. Strachan doesn’t look at Rhodes and think “This boy scored 30 goals for an unstable club that spent much of the season in the madhouse”.
Rhodes can score as many goals as he likes in the Championship, but the paucity of people capable of providing him with the service he needs, coupled with the fact that Scotland needs a high-energy worker up front more than a one-dimensional, though formidable, poacher leaves him in an unenviable spot.
He was behind Kenny Miller (now retired) and Steven Fletcher in the pecking order and there was no surprise in that. On Friday night he was understudy to Leigh Griffiths. On Tuesday evening in Macedonia he may play second fiddle again, this time to Ross McCormack, who is in the manager’s thoughts for a start up front, having come on against Belgium. Jamie Mackie is also in the picture.
Fletcher will not be called up. Too early and too risky, said Strachan, pictured right.
The lesser-spotted Rhodes is continuing to be Scotland’s great conundrum. They head for Skopje today, without the suspended Robert Snodgrass but with no injuries bar a slight concern over Charlie Adam’s back. Adam’s star has fallen in any case. Against Belgium, it was Charlie Mulgrew who played alongside Scott Brown in central midfield, an indication of Adam’s place in the grand scheme these days.
The eyes of the world will hardly be on Skopje for the clash of fourth versus sixth (or last if you want to put it that way) in a World Cup qualifier that may go some way to deciding who finishes up as the dregs of Pool A, with Wales and Serbia, the other contenders, playing each other in Cardiff on the same evening.
On the face of it there is nothing at stake, but that’s not the way things work in Scotland. There’s always something at stake and in this one it is either going to be victory and the re-establishing of some of the momentum that was lost in the buffeting by Belgium or defeat and a weary, God-forsaken return to Square One or a draw that will keep things in limbo for a while longer. This is match that won’t register beyond Macedonia and Scotland, but it’s important nonetheless. There is something excruciating about looking at Group A and seeing the Scots at the arse-end of it. The country has never finished bottom of any pool in any qualifying campaign and starting now would only sink the bit of feelgood that Strachan managed to establish with the victory over Croatia.
It will be a more realistic barometer of where Scotland are than the Belgian mismatch. Macedonia have won twice on their own ground in the group, which is precisely two more victories than Scotland have managed at Hampden. They beat Wales on Friday night. Scotland have lost both games against Chris Coleman’s side. They beat Serbia earlier in the pool. Scotland have one point from six against the Serbs. The game has relevance, even if it is a pitiful kind of relevance. Scotland are playing to avoid finishing last. It has come to this.
“It is not great, I don’t like to see it,” said Strachan of the view of Group A. “It hurts, yeah, but I have been hurt a few times in football and the squad has been hurt at times but we have managed to dust ourselves down and do something about it. I think [Macedonia] will be difficult. The pitch [in Skopje] is not great. It’s a big match. It’s winnable but Wales couldn’t win there. It’s also hard. We have to look at what we have got. There’s certain areas we really have to look at. I am happy with certain areas of the team.Certain areas are nearly picking itself now.
“The players can take heart from the way they have gone about their business in these last three games. I thought Brown and Mulgrew were terrific on Friday. And Shaun [Maloney] was terrific working with them. You have to remember they have played in Champions League games.
“If you look at our squad, some of them are not even getting a game in the Championship. So they don’t get European football. [Celtic’s] boys are playing in the Champions League so they knew how to handle it. There were four, five, six players like that. I look at it and think, ‘I like my back four, I like my goalies, we have plenty in the middle of the park and it’s up front where we need to look at our options to link up with the rest of them because we have players in the middle of the park who like playing with people’. It’s not an easy job playing up front for us just now.”
Miller has left the stage but he could write a book about the frustration of being the lone Scottish striker. Rhodes is in the infancy of his international career but already he could add a chapter or two himself. Rhodes, Griffiths, Mackie, McCormack – all of these players are just keeping the place warm for Fletcher. Alas, the Sunderland striker will be nowhere near Skopje on Tuesday. For the sake of the national footballing mood you hope that they can get through the night without grimly bemoaning his absence in the aftermath.
Scotland have started to move away from the dog-days of the Craig Levein era. To return so soon would be indecent and dismal beyond words.