DECISIONS, decisions. For Gordon Strachan, there have been too few of them for his liking since he became Scotland manager just over a year ago.
But suddenly, that has changed. The selection process he undertook to name his 24-man squad for the international challenge match against Poland in Warsaw on 5 March was, he says, by far the most difficult he has faced in the job.
Before revealing it to the media just before lunchtime yesterday, Strachan spent the morning making phone calls to around half a dozen players he felt had been unlucky to miss out.
His toughest call, however, is yet to come with Strachan poised to choose between David Marshall and Allan McGregor as his number one goalkeeper ahead of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign which begins later this year.
The pair will be on opposite sides this weekend when Marshall’s Cardiff City play host to McGregor’s Hull City in a crucial fixture in the relegation zone of the English Premier League.
Former Rangers ’keeper McGregor appeared to have firmly established himself as Scotland’s first choice in the wake of erstwhile rival Craig Gordon’s injury problems. But Marshall, who left Celtic under Strachan’s management, has been earning rave reviews for his club displays this season.
The 28-year-old has made more saves than any other Premier League ’keeper, with his breathtaking stop to deny Aston Villa’s Andreas Weimann an injury-time winner last week being hailed as the save of the season.
Marshall started Scotland’s last two games, against Norway and USA, when McGregor was absent through injury. But Strachan admits Marshall’s form could earn his place in direct preference to McGregor against Poland.
“I’m starting to get club manager’s choices now and these are big decisions,” said Strachan. “That’s what management is all about.
“It is a decision I’ve still to make but David Marshall has been phenomenal. The save he made the other night is up there amongst one of the greats – I’m sure the Cardiff fans will be talking about that save for a long time to come.
“He has become a personality on the football field and that, when you talk about character building, is key. If you can take knocks in football and come back, which David has done, it makes you a stronger personality.
“He’s still a quiet lad off the field but he has a personality on it and that’s where it counts. You can hang your hat on him because he always turns up. He has been at clubs like Celtic where he played and then got left out and had to move on. I’ve seen people being lazy and just happy to be a number two and satisfied to just be involved with a club like Celtic.
“But David said ‘I need to move on’ and that shows character, being willing to move house and uproot his family. He’s done that and where he has got to now is all down to him.”
Strachan chose not to identify those players he called yesterday to explain their omission from the squad. But among those who were in previous squads but missed out this time are Rangers left-back Lee Wallace, Wigan midfielder James McArthur, Derby midfielder Craig Bryson, Dundee United winger Gary Mackay-Steven, Blackburn striker Jordan Rhodes and Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths.
As expected, 19-year-old Dundee United left-back Andrew Robertson is called up for the first time, while captain Darren Fletcher’s welcome return came at the expense of other midfield candidates. Up front, Strachan is content with the options provided by Steven Fletcher, Ross McCormack and Steven Naismith.
“This has been like being a club manager when you have to call someone in and say ‘Look, I’m sorry, but you are not in the team tomorrow’. You have got to tell them the truth.
“There are certain areas where we are stronger than others. Some people are playing well, doing well for their clubs.
“But I just think, for our shape and how we are going to try to play, the squad is about right.
“People say, ‘there are just three strikers, three main strikers’. But if you have to start playing with other people around about them to fill these areas, rather than playing with two main strikers, it works.
“With the phone calls I had to make this morning, I think it’s fair to say we are the best equipped we have been since I took the job.
“I had to do it this morning because there were some players playing last night and I didn’t want to phone them in the afternoon before a game and say ‘Listen, you are not going to be involved in this one’.
“If they want to speak about it they can, but there are five or six who are unlucky to miss out. I felt it was the right thing to do to give them a call, whether they like it or not. I’m sure they wouldn’t like it. But they were all understanding.
“I’m pleased to have that problem, even though it’s not great making the calls. It’s not like saying they are finished with a club or anything, far from it.
“It’s just that in certain areas we are a lot stronger than others and there are two or three players I’ve left out who might think they are doing alright. And I’ll say ‘I know you are, but for this squad that’s who I am picking’. You have to pick the players that suit what we are going to try to do.”
Griffiths has been left out for a third successive squad but Strachan says the 23-year-old’s move to Celtic last month will enhance his future international prospects. “No disrespect to Wolves but this is night and day for Leigh now,” added Strachan.
“He’s in with the big boys now he’s at Celtic and that will be good for him. He’s good enough to score goals at all levels, no doubt about it. He’s a wee bit like Scott McDonald in the sense that he’s hungry.
“He’s a decent lad to work with. He’s funny – he certainly makes me laugh – but he’s also a hard working, conscientious guy who likes his football.
“So Leigh is a wee bit unfortunate to be left out, but I’m picking this squad to suit other players at this time. But it’s also handy for him to be able to just get on with his league football.”