Alex McLeish tells Leigh Griffiths he’s gambling with Scotland career

Scotland manager Alex McLeish has warned Leigh Griffiths. Picture: SNS/Craig Foy
Scotland manager Alex McLeish has warned Leigh Griffiths. Picture: SNS/Craig Foy
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Alex McLeish has warned Leigh Griffiths he is putting his international future at risk by pulling out of the Scotland squad days before Thursday’s Nations League clash in Israel.

The Scotland manager revealed he spoke to the Celtic striker on the eve of Sunday’s 6-0 win over St Johnstone. Griffiths had already made the decision to withdraw in order to focus on his fitness. McLeish added that 
Griffiths, pictured, had been “determined” to take this course of action.

“I’ve said there are no guarantees,” said McLeish yesterday. “We are looking for top performances from the guys that we have in the current squad. Everybody here wants to play for Scotland in these games.

“If we can get positive results then it just increases the confidence levels and empowers the players. They have got the evidence (to back it up) if they start getting a run of results.”

The manager finished their conversation by reminding Griffiths he can’t be assured a place for the next double-header against Albania and 
Israel. “There are no guarantees,” said McLeish. “That’s how I left it.” Asked if Griffiths was taking a gamble with his Scotland career, he replied: “Yeah, but it is his personal decision. It is up to Leigh to see what happens in the future.”

A statement released by the Scottish Football Association included quotes from Griffiths, who said it wasn’t a decision he had made lightly. He added he “hoped to be part of Alex’s plans in future, if selected”.

The withdrawal comes days after McLeish revealed the striker had blanked his phone call. McLeish wanted to explain comments where he suggested Steven Naismith was now the country’s No 1 striker after the Hearts forward scored once and made another in last month’s 2-0 win over Albania. Griffiths was dropped to the bench that night and only appeared for the last 20 minutes.

The Celtic striker spelled out his disenchantment several days later when stressing it was a “kick in the teeth” for him and others to hear from the manager that a rival for their position was already in pole position to play.

McLeish insisted he was not concerned by Griffiths’ outburst. Indeed, he welcomed the spiky reaction, which included three goals in his next four games 
for his club, two of which were match-winners.

“There’s not a problem with that,” said McLeish. “I understand a reaction at a particular time, but he didn’t carry it forward. I said at the time that he replied by scoring three goals in quick succession. That was a good reaction to the whole thing. There is not a problem. I had a good conversation with Leigh on Saturday. I said: ‘Okay, there are obviously no guarantees, but if you feel you have got to get yourself fit’. That is down to his mentality. He is determined to do it. Let’s see what happens.”

The latest twist has certainly enhanced Naismith’s chances of starting against Israel in Haifa on Thursday night. McLeish insisted there could be no certainties in terms of Griffiths’ wish to return to the fold with the remaining forwards now handed two more chances to cement their place. Scotland also take on Portugal in a friendly at Hampden Park on Sunday.

Johnny Russell and Oli McBurnie join Naismith, pictured, in contention to play while McLeish is also still deliberating whether to call another striker up, with Sheffield Wednesday’s Steven Fletcher an option.

Griffiths will stay back at his club this week but where he goes next with Scotland remains to be seen. He has scored four times in 19 appearances including a memorable brace of late free-kicks against England last summer.

He remains what most would consider Scotland’s most natural goalscorer at a time when such players are scarce. In a statement yesterday, Griffiths said: “I feel that I need to focus on my fitness over this international period and get back into the best possible shape.

“I had a good discussion with the manager to explain my decision. It’s not one that I’ve made lightly. It means a lot to me to play for Scotland.”