Alex McLeish has confirmed Scotland stalwarts such as Darren Fletcher, James Morrison and James McArthur still have a part to play at international level but is planning to remain loyal to those he feels have enhanced their reputation on Scotland’s summer tour.
The controversial trip drew to an end fixture-wise in Estadio Azteca in the early hours of Sunday morning when an inexperienced Scotland team stood up to the stiff challenge of facing Mexico in their own fortress.
McLeish could not conceal his pride in his makeshift side managing to restrict Mexico to just one goal in the 1-0 defeat.
“It was amazing for them to come to the Azteca and stand up to it,” said McLeish. “Those who have never played at this level can’t have any idea what it’s like. That is a big, big credit to these guys to come into this pitch and stand tall and proud and do their careers no harm at all.”
So often such tours as these after long, hard seasons have been breeding grounds for misbehaviour, often alcohol-related. The tricky conditions, certainly in Mexico City where high altitude was combined with a fuggy heat, demanded a high level of professionalism.
“The way some of them lasted the 90 minutes was testimony to the preparation,” he said, with reference to the Azteca outing, where Scotland endured some fraught moments. “The sports science team were fantastic and if the players can keep going in that direction with their strait-laced professionalism then who knows what they can do?”
Scott McKenna, the 21-year-old Aberdeen defender, was only told on the morning of the match he was being named captain, despite his own skipper at Pittodrie, Graeme Shinnie, starting alongside him at left-back.
“He (McKenna) was burst at the end,” said McLeish. “I was kicking every ball with the guys. I was shouting, trying to shout across the park, which was impossible in a stadium like this.
“I saw Scott’s face and he looked at me, and I was praying that there wouldn’t be another player trying a wee one-two against him or someone getting in behind him because he was out on his feet. He gave so much.”
McKenna was one of only two players – Kilmarnock full-back Stephen O’Donnell was the other – who played every minute of the tour. McLeish stayed true to his promise to give everyone in the 21-man travelling party some playing time. He blooded nine debutants in total, including seven in the opening 2-0 defeat to Peru in Lima.
He has now used 32 players in his first four games since returning for a second spell as manager. The likes of Fletcher, Morrison and McArthur have still to play for him. McLeish is writing no-one off as thoughts turn to the resumption of competitive fixtures in the Autumn but he says he has been given plenty to ponder on the long flight home.
“I wouldn’t say that they have no chance of playing,” he said, with reference to those older, more established players who have been conspicuous by their absence from his plans to date.
“I have been in dialogue with McArthur over the last four months or so. McArthur is an integral part of the Scottish national team, he’s a great player, a Premier League player and he is playing at the top level.
“At Crystal Palace at the end of the season McArthur was instrumental. But we had an agreement that he was playing with some pain and he wanted to get through that. McArthur is very big in my thoughts. Fletch, Morrison…I am not ruling anybody out. I told Fletch that.”
It isn’t only those who impressed McLeish on and off the pitch on the tour who will be entering his thoughts for the games to come against Albania and Israel in the Nations League. He has also been keeping tabs on the Scotland Under-21s’ progression at the Toulon tournament. He mentioned Everton teenager Fraser Hornby, who many are hoping can be the potential answer to Scotland’s long-standing striker problems – they mustered just two shots on target v Peru and Mexico.
McLeish also praised 16-year-old Billy Gilmour and Oliver Burke, who scored the Under-21s’ goals in Saturday’s 2-1 win over South Korea. The manager watched the game in his hotel before travelling the short distance – in Mexico City terms at least – to Estadio Azteca.
It’s still far too early for Gilmour but McLeish will come under inevitable pressure to turn to Burke. The manager sounded cautious. “He did well, great goal, I saw it. Cracking. There’s other aspects to the game and I think Oli kind of lost his way a wee bit. But that performance in Toulon is going to enhance the big fella’s confidence. Of course, we would love pace like that as part of the Scotland project. But there are other things other than pace. We will see if he has improved on these things.”
This “Scotland project” remains very much a work in progress. It’s not quite revolution but neither is it evolution. McLeish is being forced to change things quicker than even he would have preferred.
He expressed the hope before departure that “a couple of gems” might emerge from the trip. It’s still far too early to make any pronouncements about the international prospects of the likes of Lewis Morgan, Stephen O’Donnell and Chris Cadden, but they can reflect on worthwhile tours. Morgan, in particular, looks bright.
Hibs full-back Lewis Stevenson and Shinnie were another two singled out by McLeish. But he stressed all had left the tour having burnished their reputations in his eyes.
“There were no negative endorphins or whatever you want to call it,” said McLeish. “The players were very professional and they played a couple of good games, guys who may not previously have been on the radar to play for the national team. Every last one of them has enhanced their reputation I feel.”