Scotland in Turkey: Kurdish separatism, black basalt, Tartan Army delights, Calvin Ramsay debut and decision over reverting to default formation

Scotland’s friendly in Turkey can feel akin to one of those filler albums that rock artists put out before switching labels.

Scotland's Calvin Ramsay made his debut for Liverpool last week.
Scotland's Calvin Ramsay made his debut for Liverpool last week.

Undertaken to meet contract obligations, the backdrop and purpose of these exercises can appear questionable. Certainly, there might be a few in Steve Clarke’s depleted squad wondering how and why they are the first foreign international team to contest an international in Diyarbakır, situated south-east of a fractured nation. There is, though, more merit to the encounter that might superficially appear.

Scotland players won’t be digging deeply into the socio-political, but a tumble-down city of 1.5million inhabitants and incredible cultural sites deserves this moment. Regarded as the de facto capital of the Kurdistan territory, until a recent period of calm it had witnessed often violent conflict between separatists groups and the Turkish state. The latter – under the autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – have been guilty of prejudice and discrimination on a grand scale against those of Kurdish ethnicity and sympathies. An expression of which was deposing and jailing democratically-elected mayors. Erdogan’s response to where voters gave their backing, in this case the pro-Kurdish HDP (the People’s Democratic Party), was that “everything they do constitutes a crime”.

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The terrorist attack in the centre of Istanbul on Sunday that killed six people and injured 81 others, and was blamed on Kurdish militants, has raised fears over Scotland’s presence in Diyarbakır. As has its location, described as “close to the Syrian border” where an horrific civil war continues to rage … even as the global community has turned its attention away and supplanted it with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the humanitarian cause to prompt badge-wearing. However, Syria is further from the city than London is to Glasgow. As for its proximity to Istanbul, Glasgow is closer to Barcelona. The Scotland squad won’t be able to visit the unique landmarks in Diyarbakır – from the near intact Roman walls encirling the city centre, to the mosques and churches – made so by their creation from black basalt hewn out of a nearby volcano. The expected 1,000 strong Tartan Army travelling for the game have that chance; the opportunity of a once-in-a-lifetime trip, not a trip that threatens lives.

Arsenal defender Kieran Tierney is back in the Scotland squad.

Even the simple fact Scotland are playing Turkey offers that prospect. The two countries have met only once before. And that was way back in June 1960, for a friendly in the capital Ankara won 4-2 by the hosts. Turkey will certainly test Scotland’s durability now. Their bid for the imminent Qatar World Cup finals also came to grief in the play-offs. Finishing only two points behind the Netherlands in their qualifying group, they were beaten 3-1 by Portugal.

Clarke spoke last week about value in the Diyarbakır assignment. The staging has ensured that there won’t be a five-month gap in bringing his players together between last month’s Ukraine draw that claimed them Nations League success and the opening Euro 2024 qualifier at home to Cyprus in March. And then there is the mission to see Scotland kick off their Euros bid maintaining momentum in extending their unbeaten run to five games. That objective will not be easy. In truth, there is no such thing as momentum in international football. Personnel, and form, is too fluid across the standard three-month winter hiatus.

It isn’t a big handicap that he does not have the services of a Celtic trio in Anthony Ralston, Greg Taylor and David Turnbull as the result of their Sydney Super Cup commitments trumping a game played outside of an official FIFA international window. It is doubtful any of them would have started. It is injuries that have impacted Clarke’s plans – Celtic captain Callum McGregor sidelined in such fashion, irrespective of his club going down under. McGregor is joined by Aaron Hickey, and this week’s call-offs Che Adams, Callum Patterson and Kenny McLean as players presently not fit. The absence of Hickey and Ralston will hand Calvin Ramsay a Scotland debut on the right flank, the defender fresh from making his first appearance for Liverpool following his summer move from Aberdeen.

It is what happens on the left of the pitch, and what form it takes, that is the real source of intrigue over Clarke’s starting XI selection. For the first time since March, the Scotland manager has both captain Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney available. Without both of this elite duo at his disposal, Clarke successfully deviated from his three central defenders supported by wing-backs system – a set-up to which he defaulted to accommodate both the Liverpool and Arsenal lefties. It would surprise if he didn’t want the pair to be on the pitch from the first whistle. The result will be Robertson operating as wing-back while Tierney is deployed on the left of a trio of centre-backs. Inside him will most likely be Grant Hanley and Jack Hendry. Behind this line is sure to be Hearts’ age-defying keeper Craig Gordon.

A photo taken on October 1, 2015 shows a general view of the Hasan Pasa caravansary in Diyarbakir.

In the absence of Adams, Lyndon Dykes is likely to be tasked with ploughing a lone furrow in attack. That allows for all manner of permutations in midfield. It seems probable that, shorn of McGregor, Billy Gilmour will be handed his first Scotland start in five months. The 21-year-old has had a lean time of it since his summer move to Brighton from Chelsea, but last week played his first full 90 minutes for the south coast side in their impressive 3-1 League Cup success away to Arsenal. John McGinn and Scott McTominay no doubt will also be handed starts. The Aston Villa captain and Manchester United midfielder, through spells on the bench, have hardly been over-worked at club level across the past month. The encouraging form of Lewis Ferguson for Bologna of late could earn the 23-year-old, who has four caps, only a second start for his country. A side that looks more than decent on paper, the proof will come on the pitch.

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