‘Country comes first’ – the words that ended Craig Levein and Steven Fletcher’s feud

Steven Fletcher: 'Country comes first'. Picture: SNS
Steven Fletcher: 'Country comes first'. Picture: SNS
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STEVEN Fletcher revealed his spat with Scotland manager Craig Levein ended with both men agreeing that “the country comes first”.

The Sunderland striker is back in the Scotland squad for the crucial 2014 World Cup qualifiers against Wales and Belgium after ending a 20-month impasse between himself and the manager, although assistant manager Peter Houston revealed Fletcher is not guaranteed to play. “It might be that he is picked in two games, it might be that he is picked in one game, he might not be picked at all,” said Houston as the squad gathered at Mar Hall.

Houston also held out hope of a late recall to the squad this week for Celtic midfielder Kris Commons after Norwich City’s Robert Snodgrass reported for duty with an ankle injury. Snodgrass was an unused substitute for his club on Saturday as they lost 4-1 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and his condition will continue to be assessed by Scotland’s medical staff today.

If Snodgrass fails to respond well to treatment, Commons is on stand-by to replace him for the Group A fixtures against Wales and Belgium. The 29-year-old has been in excellent form for Celtic this season but has continued to be omitted by Levein. Commons has not featured for Scotland since the London friendly against Brazil in March 2011. But Houston insists Levein has been impressed by Commons in recent weeks.

“We were talking about it last night, in case Robert has to leave the squad,” said Houston. “The manager was talking highly of Kris, saying that he was doing well. If Snoddy doesn’t make it, then Kris would be a possibility. I don’t 100 per cent know, but I would guess that Kris would be up there if we bring someone else in. I think that’s probably fair to say, because the manager has been talking really highly of Kris. There hasn’t been a call made to him yet, but I think if the manager does bring somebody else in, Kris would be next in line.”

Blackburn Rovers defender Grant Hanley was the only withdrawal from the squad which gathered at their Renfrewshire base yesterday, ahead of flying to Wales on Thursday.

Hanley has a groin injury but will not be replaced, the Scotland management team content they have enough central defensive cover already with the versatile duo of Celtic’s Charlie Mulgrew and Norwich City captain Russell Martin. However, most of the attention at Mar Hall yesterday understandably centred around Fletcher’s re-appearance in Scotland colours.

Fletcher, 25, had been frozen out since sending a text message to a Scottish Football Association official in February 2011 informing him he did not wish to be selected for the Carling Nations Cup game against Northern Ireland.

However, after Sunderland and Scotland defender Phil Bardsley acted as intermediary, a recent reconciliation took place, with Fletcher echoing Levein’s sentiments that the whole episode had been regrettable. The former Hibernian and Wolves player, whose only appearance under Levein was in a 3-0 friendly defeat by Sweden in August 2010, has enjoyed positive talks with the Scotland manager in the past week and is eager to add to his eight caps and one international goal, starting against the Welsh in Cardiff on Friday night.

In an interview on scottishfa.co.uk, Fletcher said: “I am desperate to play for Scotland again and, like Craig, I regret that it has taken this long to come about.

“I’m sure we have both done a lot of thinking during the last two years, but the country comes first.

“I think it just became apparent that we all needed to move on. The most important thing is that I can look to restart my international career. I am a proud Scot and it is a privilege to play for my country.

“When I first spoke to Craig again it was fine and was not awkward at all. We both said our piece and agreed that whatever happened, the country comes first.

“I had a good chat with the manager when he came to visit at the training ground last week and, while it was important we discussed the past and put it to bed, it was more important that we focused on the future.

“I understand why people want to know what changed, but the truth, as the manager said last week, was that the situation wasn’t helping anyone.

“I am just happy to be back as part of the squad and looking to make a positive contribution in what are two massive World Cup qualifiers.

“I am a more experienced player than I was two years ago and I am delighted with the way things have gone at Sunderland.

“The manager [Martin O’Neill] has been very supportive, as has Phil Bardsley – who is gutted to be missing through injury.

“It was good to see the players when I arrived yesterday. I am sharing a room with Scott Brown so already it feels like I have never been away and feels like I have been here for a week already.”

Fletcher, whose five goals in five Barclays Premier League games for Sunderland had increased pressure on Levein to find a resolution to their problem, is looking to help bolster Scotland’s fragile World Cup qualifying hopes.

Draws against Serbia and Macedonia last month left the Scots playing catch-up in Group A after only two fixtures.

However, Fletcher vowed to give the Tartan Army everything he can to get the campaign back on track.

“Everyone knows it has been too long since we last qualified for a major finals and I want to do my bit to help us reach Brazil,” he said.

“We are in a tough group but we have a squad of players who are playing in the Barclays Premier League every week and guys who are gaining valuable Champions League experience with Celtic.

“We will be going to Wales looking to win and there is no point looking beyond that game.

“Our supporters will be there in their thousands and we need their support to put ourselves in contention in the group.

“I can promise them I will give everything I can along with the rest of the squad to qualify for Brazil.

“Playing in a World Cup finals in one of the most famous football nations in the world is the pinnacle of any player’s career and I am delighted that I have the opportunity again to help take Scotland there.”