PAUL Hartley yesterday encouraged Steven Fletcher to pick up the phone and speak to Craig Levein in person rather than leave one-worded messages on social network sites if he really wants to play for Scotland again under the present manager.
Hartley, who is now in charge at Alloa Athletic, accepts that he might now have a different perspective on the matter after crossing the divide from player to manager. However, from his own experience as an internationalist, he knows that no-one has a “divine right” to play for his country.
“We have all been annoyed at times,” he said. “I was left out for my country at times when I never played or was on the bench but I was proud to be involved in any squad where I was picked.”
The issue surrounding Fletcher has reared its head again after the Sunderland player wrote on Twitter that he would play again if asked by Levein. Fletcher sent a text to an SFA backroom staff member asking not to be considered for a game against Northern Ireland last year. The Scotland manager interpreted the striker’s desire to sit out the Carling Nations Cup fixture as being proof that he no longer wished to play for his country. Having not heard anything from the player to indicate otherwise, he closed the door on Fletcher’s return at the start of the current World Cup qualifying campaign.
A statement by the Scottish Football Association yesterday confirmed that, despite the tweet by Fletcher, this remained the case: “Craig made his statement earlier this season when he said the door was closed after 18 months of being open,” said the spokesperson. “That’s unlikely to change at this time.”
Hartley won 25 caps for his country and played with Fletcher for Scotland. However, he has sympathy with Levein in what has become a protracted and divisive issue.
“Sitting on the other side of it as a manager now, when somebody says they don’t want to play for you as a club manager or an international manager, then it is difficult,” said Hartley. “What are you supposed to do if a player does not want to play for you?
“He has a squad of players with which he is trying to qualify for a World Cup. I think the door was left open for him for 18 months. I think it’s up to Steven to make a phone call instead of [via] the Twitters and Facebooks of this world. It is important for Steven to go and approach the manager to say that he wants to come back. I am sure if he had done that or if he does that then it might be a different outcome.”
“I know what it’s like, now I am on the other side of the fence, when a player does not want to play for you,” he added.
Hartley viewed his international career as being particularly precious because he did not earn his first cap until the age of 28. “I think when you step up to international football [you realise] there are a lot of good players who have been left out in the past,” he said.
“I don’t think you have a divine right to play in every match, that is for sure. You should always be proud to be involved for your country. If we had won the two games [against Serbia and Macedonia] then I don’t think there would have been a lot said about Steven Fletcher. Obviously now it comes up that if Steven Fletcher had been playing we might have won the games. Otherwise, that might not have happened.”
Hartley called on Fletcher to make the first move. He hoped that senior players in the current squad might contact the striker to persuade him to contact Levein.
“You would obviously try and speak to him [Fletcher],” he said, when asked what he would have done had he still been in the squad. “But at the end of the day Steven has his own thoughts on it and Craig has his own thoughts on it. If they can come to some kind of agreement on it, then great. But I think maybe it is up to Steven to contact Craig through a phone call not Twitter. Then it can be resolved.
“We can’t keep having this going on throughout the campaign. We have a big game coming up in October and while he is scoring goals for Sunderland it is going to keep coming up. The players will see it and read about it and talk about it. But once they go on the park it is forgotten about.
“One player does not make a team or a squad, it is a whole squad of them. It is about this upcoming double header, it is not about just one player.”
Levein signed Hartley for Hearts in 2003 after taking over at the Tynecastle club from Cowdenbeath. Like the Scotland manager, Hartley began his managerial career at the lowest level of senior football. Having led Alloa to promotion from the Third Division in his first full season, Hartley is not surprised at how tough Rangers are finding life in the bottom rung.
“Away from home is always difficult,” he said. “Having managed in that league there are no easy games, especially when you go to play the smaller teams because it’s a big deal for them when Rangers come to town. It’s like a cup final for them and a lot of these players will have never played against internationalists before, so they tend to raise their game.