The flank-switching by Celtic full-back Kieran Tierney for Scotland has led him to be presented as the new Danny McGrain. When it came to representing his country on his weaker side, it wasn’t always easy to be the original McGrain is what the man himself would say.
The 60-times capped McGrain was one of the game’s great right-backs across the 1970s. For Scotland, he converted himself into a great left-back to accommodate Sandy Jardine.
Tierney appears to be following a similar path after he was berthed at right-back against Slovenia in March. Gordon Strachan performed that tweak so that both the Celtic player and fellow left-back Andrew Robertson – the best two youngsters in his squad – could be on the pitch together. Tierney gave little indication that he had only ever played the position before at an under-15 tournament, but Slovenia helped owing to their complete lack of ambition.
McGrain believes Tierney’s education in playing full-back on his wrong side will move up several notches in Saturday’s World Cup qualifier against England at Hampden. It was against the old enemy in 1973 that the 67-year-old was first asked to exhibit such adaptability. He does not pretend it came naturally, or instantly.
“I had no left foot,” McGrain said. “So I had to work hard on it for two weeks. When you hit the ball with your left foot, your right hand comes up here. It comes up there and when I was hitting the ball with my left foot I hadn’t trained it to go anywhere. This keeps your balance.
“Hitting a ball off a wall, or maybe one day training with somebody, you need to do to get your right arm up. If you haven’t trained your right hand to go up when you are hitting the ball with your left foot, it wouldn’t go up. You had to train, tell your brain what to do.
“After a week of hitting the ball distances or against the wall I became more used to the arm going up. [But] it could have taken three months, six months until I wasn’t even thinking about it.
“It was even getting to the stage where I was getting to the touchline and I was just keeping the ball in the park, I wasn’t giving a f*** where it was going to, even though I was having to chase back. I was quite happy about that.”
McGrain is ultimately happy about the added depth to his game that came through his ability to play as a left-back in the international arena with aplomb – the reverse of which treble-winner Tierney may be given by the boldness of Strachan. Not that McGrain, in the Celtic backroom set-up, has ever discussed the matter with the club’s most prized home-grown talent.
“Of course it made me a better player. A two-footed full-back, there wasn’t many of us about, maybe Tommy Gemmell… Did I explain this to Kieran? He wouldn’t even talk to me, he is that good.
“It is great. It isn’t that Kieran doesn’t talk to me, he has enough people in the first team squad, the coaching staff, telling him what to do. If they want any help or need any help they know I am there. But nobody has asked me. But Kieran is such a nice guy, only 19 and such a good player. Consistency is the stamp of a good player and that’s exactly what he produces for Celtic. The team’s so consistent too. Kieran’s just getting better and better and I can’t wait to see him in a couple of years.”
If Tierney does continue at right-back, it might spare him coming up against Raheem Sterling, as he did in Celtic’s Champions League encounters against Manchester City this season – unless England manager Gareth Southgate switches the winger’s flank to put him up against a largely untested right-back.
“Raheem Sterling sometimes was brilliant against him before, and sometimes you get that. As long as he doesn’t score. I played against Jesper Olsen in 1982 [for Celtic against Ajax in the European Cup], when big Billy [McNeill] was the manager. You would have thought big Billy would have told me about him but I just went on the park and this wee guy just flew by me.
“He scores a goal within three minutes. I am thinking ‘oh f***, cheers Billy’, looking at the dugout and thinking what am I supposed to do. The boy Jan Molby was hitting the ball inside me, over me. But then it was 2-2 at Parkhead and we beat them over at Ajax 2-1. I either kicked him early or threatened him but I must have knocked the stuffing out of him because he never went by me like that, like a rocket.”