Roxburgh: Player eligibility a ‘sensitive issue’

IN Andy Roxburgh’s New York Red Bulls office there is a picture of him holding a tartan scarf above his head after the 2-1 victory over Sweden at Italia 90 – Scotland’s last win at a World Cup finals.

Andy Roxburgh, right, with Craig Levein during a visit to Celtic Park just under two years ago. Picture: SNS

There is a tin of Walkers shortbread sitting on his desk, lest anyone make the mistake of thinking he has forgotten his roots.

There is also a signed shirt from Lionel Messi hanging in a frame on the wall, a reminder of Roxburgh’s days while working with Uefa in Europe, when he often came into contact with the world’s best players.

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It just so happens that Argentina are training at the Red Bull Arena this week ahead of their game against Ecuador, although Messi is absent because of injury.

Roxburgh, now 70, wonders whether he should have tried to tap up Messi for Scotland, a sign that he is alert to the topical subject of the day – player eligibility, and the ease with which it is now possible to switch national allegiance.

“It is a very sensitive issue,” he says. “I’m from the traditional school where we could only pick players who were born in Scotland or their parents were. And therefore that was where we came from.

“Clearly things have now changed. To be pragmatic about it, whatever the rules are and allow you to do you simply operate within those rules.

“We can talk about the romance of the game and things like that to our hearts’ content. But you have got to be pragmatic and, whatever the rules are, you operate within them.”

“Clearly it would be great if all of our players were born in Scotland or had Scottish parents. But, again, we have got to face up to the rules as they are today and accept that. So it wouldn’t faze me, it’s a matter of reality.”

The fact that Roxburgh is describing the view in his office across a crackly conference call line reminds you that he is far, far away as Scotland, the team he managed for seven years between 1986 and 1993, prepare to face the United States, where he is now gainfully employed as sporting director for MLS side New York Red Bulls.

Rather than take in the events from a few feet away on a touchline, as he did when Scotland played the United States in Denver on a pre-Euro 92 tour, he will be tuning in from across the Atlantic, and hoping the result tomorrow night is more like the 1-0 win achieved under him than the 5-1 hammering endured by the Scots the last time the teams met two summers ago.

The game is definitely live here so I will be watching it,” he says. “It’s strange watching Scotland from a distance but the tartan stuff is still here and I’ve got the Walkers shortbread in front of me.

“I have a photograph in front of me with me holding up the tartan scarf in Genoa the night we beat Sweden.

“It reminds me of, not only being privileged to be the Scotland manager, but also that you’re a lifelong fan.

“That’s why I had the scarf that night. We had lost the opening match and I wore the scarf to let everyone know that we were also fans.”

Roxburgh’s time as manager were golden years compared to what the Scottish fans have had to put up with in recent times.

He recalls the talent he has at his disposal in the summer when he took Scotland to Sweden for their first-ever experience of the European Championship finals.

Without meaning to be disrespectful to the current crop of international stars, he adds that “it is hard for me to make a comparison” with the players of that era.

“We had a lot of very good players in our team, who at the time were playing consistently at the highest level.

“Ally McCoist, Gary McAllister, Paul McStay, Pat Nevin, Brian McClair, Stuart McCall, Mo Malpas, all these guys”.

Roxburgh also once coached Gordon Strachan, of course. Indeed, the current Scotland manager made his last international appearance under Roxburgh against Finland in 1992. Roxburgh describes him as “feisty” and “competitive”.

“He also had a great sense of humour,” he says. “He has a lot of sides to his character. On one side he can be quite relaxed and funny, but he also has this fierce competitive element to him.

“Even when I had him as a player, he was one you looked at and thought: ‘This guy is destined to be really good at coaching’. He likes things to be done right. Top pros are like that. They get easily frustrated if things are not the way they want them. You could see that in Gordon as a player and I’m sure it is the same now he is a coach. I remember turning to him after one game and saying: ‘Gordon, you’re nearly as crabbit as me!’”