Paul Hartley: We have enough top players but they’re not playing

Former Celtic midfielder Paul Hartley made 25 appearances for Scotland.
Former Celtic midfielder Paul Hartley made 25 appearances for Scotland.
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Paul Hartley cherished every one of the 25 appearances he made for Scotland. From the moment he was handed his debut by Walter Smith in 2005, the combative midfielder treated every cap he earned as if it might be his last.

Little wonder, then, that Hartley observes the current environment surrounding the Scottish international set-up with a combination of bewilderment and despair.

The former Hearts and Celtic man simply can’t get his head around the number of unwilling conscripts to the Scotland cause, a worrying trend he feels contributed in no small part to the lamentable start to the Euro 2020 qualifying 
campaign.

While Hartley accepts that manager Alex McLeish will inevitably bear the brunt of the angry fall-out from the humiliating 3-0 defeat in Kazakhstan and the underwhelming 2-0 win in San Marino, he feels Scotland are being badly let down by many of those currently showing no appetite to answer their country’s call.

“During my time with Scotland, if you hadn’t turned up for an international, then you might not have been selected the next time,” said Hartley.

“When Walter Smith was in charge and then under Alex McLeish first time around, everybody turned up and we had such a strong squad. If you even look at it under Gordon Strachan, all the players seemed to be turning up. Now, players aren’t turning up for whatever reason.

“I just don’t get why you wouldn’t want to represent your country. Imagine we got to a major tournament again, it would be fantastic for the players involved. The next group of Scotland players to do that will be legends.”

Hartley feels it is no coincidence that both Wales and Northern Ireland have out-performed Scotland in recent years, both of them reaching the Euro 2016 finals. The collective commitment by their players, including even Real Madrid star Gareth Bale who earned his 75th Welsh cap at the weekend, is in sharp contrast to the problems faced by McLeish 
in putting his strongest possible squad 
together.

“You can’t say we don’t have enough quality Scottish players but for whatever reason we’re not putting the best ones on the pitch every time and that’s not down to the manager,” 
added Hartley.

“He is missing the likes of Robert Snodgrass, Tom Cairney, Matt Ritchie and James McArthur – four English Premier League players. We had five Premier League players – Andy Robertson, Ryan Fraser, Scott McTominay, Stuart Armstrong and Callum Paterson over the two games in Kazakhstan and San Marino. If you compare our squad to Northern Ireland and Wales overall, then ours is just as good.

“But Alex didn’t have his strongest squad for the Kazakhstan game, although that’s not saying we still didn’t have a good enough team to go and win it – and I just don’t get why so many players are not turning up.

“What’s the difference from the 1980s and 1990s when we actually qualified for major finals and now? Did we have 
better players? Other nations have probably improved since then but some of our players are not turning up because people are telling them not to turn up or because the sports scientists are telling them not to turn up.”

Hartley is not convinced by the theory expressed by some, including former Scotland striker Kris Boyd, that McLeish lacks the spark and enthusiasm he possessed during his first spell in charge of the country. “I’m not on the training pitch with them, so it’s hard for me to say, but, when I worked under Alex, I really enjoyed it and so did all the players,” said Hartley. “We got some good results but football has 
definitely changed in the last decade. Has he lost his spark? I wouldn’t say that.

“I don’t work with the manager and see what goes on in the background but the players will be going out with a game plan and a system provided by Alex, so maybe the players have to take responsibility when they go on to the pitch.

“It looked like we were guaranteed six points from the first two games in this group but we’ve only got three and it’s an absolute crisis. It was evident for everyone to see that Kazakhstan was such a poor performance and not the start we wanted in the qualifying campaign.

“In fact, if you looked at the first three games, with a home game against Cyprus next, we were looking to pick nine points up but we’re on the back foot now as we were way off it in Kazakhstan.

“The manager will take the criticism –that’s what happens when you become the national team manager – but the players have to take responsibility for such a poor performance.

“Did we go into the game thinking it was going to be easy? Possibly. Did we underestimate Kazakhstan? We should be good enough to go and win there.

“They are quite clearly not a great team and Russia’s 4-0 win there a few days later showed that. We made Kazakhstan look good. We just didn’t perform and we were on the back foot straight away. We were expected to go and beat San Marino because they’re the worst team in the world and it wasn’t a great performance, albeit we got the three points.

“We’ve got the guaranteed play-off on the backburner but that’s not going to be straightforward. It’s never a gimme for us.

“We want to try to get through the group automatically and we’ve given ourselves a very difficult task to qualify now because 
Russia and Belgium are two good 
outfits.

“If you look at our qualifying campaigns over the years we’ve never started well so you were looking at the first three games thinking we had a chance. We had to target nine points to take you into the Belgium and Russia matches and we haven’t done that.”

l Paul Hartley was speaking at a William Hill Foundation media event for the SFA Mental Health and Wellbeing League which runs until the final at Lesser Hampden on 25 May.