Alex McLeish always feared hearing the news Allan McGregor was quitting international football but was still taken aback when he took the call from the Rangers goalkeeper several days ago.
What might prove a confusing revelation as far as Scotland fans are concerned is McLeish’s admission that McGregor, 37, had informed him just a few weeks ago that he wanted to play on until he was 40 – for club and country.
McLeish admits the hope was he “would do a Buffon” – a reference to the Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who is still playing top- level football with Paris Saint Germain at 41 years old and only retired from international football last year. McLeish reflected on the age profile of Scotland’s two main goalkeepers – the 36-year-old Craig Gordon, McGregor’s understudy, has been displaced by Scott Bain at Celtic and is currently injured in any case.
“If any international manager worldwide had goalies at that age they would probably be a little bit concerned they were possibly coming to the end of their careers,” he said. “Just one little incident, a knee or a back when the bones are creaking a bit at that time, and I’m sure everybody would have that fear.
“Greegsy wants to go until he’s 40,” McLeish added. “He told me that a couple of months ago. He said: ‘I’m determined to get through to 40 for club and country’. Then this moment comes.”
McLeish claims there is nothing sinister about the decision. He insists the goalkeeper retires a hero having made the stunning late save from Israel substitute Tomer Hemed that helped secure a 3-2 win over Israel in November and ensured Scotland topped their Nations League qualifying group. “That save will be remembered for a long time,” said McLeish. “He goes out on a high and we should applaud what the guy has done for his country.”
That reflex stop may also have kept McLeish in a job. The Scotland manager was always going to be grateful to McGregor rather than feel scorned by him. McLeish handed the goalkeeper his debut in senior football for Rangers when he came on as a replacement for Stefan Klos in a Scottish Cup tie at Forfar Athletic in 2002. He also gave him his Scotland debut – against Austria in 2007.
While he might likewise feel loyalty towards McLeish, McGregor has had a more difficult relationship with the Scottish Football Association. He was banned sine die after making two-fingered gestures to photographers while on the bench alongside Barry Ferguson at a game against Iceland during George Burley’s ill-fated spell in charge of Scotland. McGregor had already been dropped for the game, having been involved in a drinking session that lasted until Sunday lunchtime at the team hotel a few days earlier.
He was recalled the following year by Craig Levein following Burley’s sacking and had forced his way back into the No 1 spot for Scotland ahead of Craig Gordon. While he was reaching the twilight of his career, it was assumed McGregor would at least continue until Scotland’s Euro 2020 qualifying fate became clear before making a decision about his future. So, McLeish was asked, what changed between McGregor telling him earlier this year he wanted to play on for Scotland until 40 to now, when he has stepped away from the international scene for good ahead of the opening Euro 2020 qualifiers against Kazakhstan and San Marino?
“Aches and pains,” he said. “At the end of my career I was waking up with a hip pain and I had to try to make it go away before I could train.”
If it seems a sudden escalation of these age-related problems, McLeish was adamant the decision was not linked to another disagreement between McGregor and the SFA, the disciplinary arm of which recently served him a two-match ban after the goalkeeper raised his feet in a clash with Aberdeen player Lewis Ferguson.
“I spoke to him about that and he says it is utter nonsense,” he said. “I have been up before the beaks before, back in the old Park Gardens days, and it never got me to thinking: ‘I’m going to phone Jock Stein and tell him this is out of order.’ That would be petty, I think.”
Now it is up to one of Bain, Sunderland’s Jon McLaughlin, pictured, and Jordan Archer of FA Cup quarter-finalists Millwall to seize the opportunity afforded by the combination of McGregor’s surprise announcement and Gordon’s injury.
Bain, pictured left, is the clear front-runner, having also replaced Gordon in the Celtic first team. All three goalkeepers named in McLeish’s squad yesterday went with Scotland on their summer tour to Peru and Mexico, with Bain keeping a clean sheet after coming on for McLaughlin at half-time in the latter match at Estadio Azteca.
His career trajectory has steepened considerably since he was sidelined last season by his then Dundee manager Neil McCann following a fall-out. He joined Celtic on loan in January and then signed a permanent deal with the champions in the summer.
“I am not going to make any decisions right now,” said McLeish when asked who will line up in goal against Kazakhstan next week. “We have to wait and see how the players get on in their respective games coming up before we make any assessments. Scott Bain is in a good position. He is in a good moment with Celtic. He is the No 1 choice in one of the top teams in Britain. He is going to make a really big challenge to guys who are a wee bit older than him and more experienced.
“It was a while ago that I launched McGregor on his Rangers and Scotland career. Now there is a chance for another goalkeeper to have a career between the sticks with Scotland.”