Same old story, different year and manager. Twelve months on from what was deemed a new low for Scotland’s national team, when as many as 11 players dropped out of the squad for crucial Nation League games against Albania and Israel, the elimination process has once again begun.
It was reported yesterday that Matt Ritchie, right, has retired from international football. On top of this came news that skipper Andy Robertson, Scott McTominay and Ryan Fraser have joined Liam Cooper on the injured list ahead of forthcoming fixtures against Cyprus and Kazakhstan. Kieran Tierney was not even considered for the original squad following a request by Arsenal, who say he needs treatment for an unspecified injury.
Of those available for the last double header, Robert Snodgrass has since announced he has retired from international duty.
Steven Fletcher’s situation, meanwhile, remains unknown. But what matters is he is not currently available for selection.
While both games are effectively dead rubbers, manager Steve Clarke has stressed how important it is to pick up two wins to secure third place in the group and send the Scots into the March play-offs in better heart than might otherwise be the case. Alex Dyer was handed the task of delivering more details on the latest spate of call-offs. They are plaguing Clarke’s efforts to consolidate himself in the job, just as they did predecessor Alex McLeish and a list of managers going back further. It does seem to be reaching some kind of crisis point, with the number of players quitting the scene completely abnormally high.
“It is not personal,” stressed Dyer, Clarke’s assistant. “It is never going to be personal, it is football. You pick it and if they don’t want to be here or are injured then push them aside and take the ones that are here. There is no time for messing around. If there are lads who don’t want to be here that is fair enough. But lads who want to be here are the ones we have to deal with and make sure we focus on them. We make sure they are ready to go for the games.”
Liverpool left-back Robertson was among those milling around behind Dyer as he spoke. He has chosen to join up with the squad for a few days despite being unable to feature in either of the games due to an ankle injury sustained against Manchester City.
McTominay’s absence was expected after he was stretchered off near the end of Manchester United’s win over Brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday. Fraser played all 90 minutes of Bournemouth’s defeat at Newcastle on Saturday while Cooper picked up a groin injury playing for Leeds United against Blackburn Rovers on the same day.
“They are genuinely injured,” said Dyer. “All the players mentioned in the squad want to be here but can’t be in the circumstances due to injuries. It’s part of the game, it’s part of international football.
“It’s a tough job for the manager but he knows what it takes in international football. He knows you name a squad and you know some of them are not going to be here.
“They play for their clubs and give 100 per cent every Saturday. There will always be a point when some of them get injured. The most important thing is the boys who are here, they want to be here and they want to help Scotland push on and win these two games.”
Asked how Clarke was taking this almost routine dose of disappointment, Dyer claimed he was sanguine. “He knows what it’s about,” he said. “He knows it’s hard work and there will be disappointments along the way. But, knowing the man, it’s about the ones who are here. They are the ones who will make the difference. He wants to work with people who want to be here and want to give it their all. That’s all he focuses on.”
Dyer also addressed the surprise from some quarters at Lewis Morgan’s addition to the squad. The Celtic midfielder has only played twice since September, both times as substitute.
“It is all about standards and who is good,” explained Dyer. “Just because you are not playing for your club does not mean you are a bad player. It just means that club has better players or the manager is picking players he trusts maybe more. It doesn’t mean Lewis is not a good player because he is. We have seen him work in the first camp he was here and he trained and played well. Lewis is a good lad and plays well for the 21s and we are glad he is here.”
A harder line might be required before the play-off matches in March, with clubs obligated by Fifa to release players. Injured players must be assessed by the national side’s medical team.
“Whether we can go down that route a little bit, it’s not for me to say,” said Dyer. “The gaffer will look at it between now and March. If they don’t want to come or are injured then we take the ones that are here and we make it work. It is a big opportunity for us to be in the play-offs. We want to be in a championship.”