What a sad coda to Leigh Griffiths’ Scotland career if his exclusion from Scotland’s Euro 2020 squad has signalled the end of his involvement at international level after 22 caps and four goals. A penalty converted in one of the most highly pressurised situations it’s possible to conceive for a footballer, against Serbia last November, could prove his last meaningful contribution.
Steve Clarke has now survived the first in a series of occasions over the coming weeks when he will have to deliver bad news. Others were of a higher priority than Griffiths, who was also absent from Clarke's last squad, when it came to providing an explanation.
The Scotland manager felt particularly sore about letting down recent mainstays Andrew Considine and Liam Palmer after he excluded the pair from his list of 26 names for this summer’s European Championship finals.
Others will be left disappointed when Clarke names his starting XI before Scotland’s first major finals game in 23 years against Czech Republic next month. At least those left on the bench, or in the stand, for this and other matches will be there. At least they will get a taste of big tournament fever.
Clarke is not purely a bearer of bad news. The only reason there’s disappointment for some is because there’s joy for others. Billy Gilmour, Nathan Patterson and David Turnbull, the first two Scottish Performance school graduates, were walking on air having learned of their call-ups. So, too, was Kevin Nisbet, the Hibs striker who only made his international debut in March. He has more than just this Saturday’s Scottish Cup football to look forward to.
Clarke left the announcement to the Scottish Football Association's communications team, who put together a lively, well-received film that included guest appearances from former Dunfermline manager Jim Leishman and referee Bobby Madden among others.
But away from the cameras one had to imagine the scene where Clarke flicked open his contacts book – he’s 57, he presumably still uses one – and then very deliberately dialled Considine and Palmer's mobile numbers. This is the flip side to the so-called ‘big reveal’ video that has been shared multiple times on social media.
Clarke reasoned that those who were included in the squad as recently as March, when Scotland began their World Cup qualifying campaign, deserved to be contacted and told over the phone. Of those fit enough to be considered from that group, only Palmer and Considine have dropped out.
“It was difficult,” said Clarke. “Listen, I am just myself. I am honest and I tell them what I think and that’s just the way it is.
"Obviously there is a little bit of you who sees Andy Considine at 34-years-old - it would maybe have been Andy’s last chance to be at a major tournament. That’s not to say he couldn’t be involved in Qatar because Andy keeps himself in fantastic shape. They were difficult calls, but that’s what I’m asked to do.”
Others such as Griffiths and Lawrence Shanklandmay already have feared the worst. Nevertheless, they will be hurting – like Griffiths against Serbia, Shankland was neveless when converting a critical penalty in the play-off semi-final shoot-out win over Israel.
Clarke recalled these moments. Qualification has been a team effort, but the team has to move on and evolve, particularly when the campaign, which included a Nations League mini-group under a different manager, has been so sprawling.
“If you think back to the penalty shoot-out in Serbia, Leigh Griffiths scored, Oli McBurnie scored and Kenny McLean scored - and those three aren’t going to be part of it,” noted Clarke.“But what we can do is we can thank those boys for getting us there and being part of the journey to get there. That’s how it is."
Of course, McLean and McBurnie might well have been included were it not for injury, almost certainly so in the former's case. For Griffiths, it’s another blow in a career that is now beginning to seriously unravel.
His age – 30 – and lack of match practice recently might well have counted against him. There may also have been some understandable reservations about how he would cope with being cooped up for at least a couple of weeks at a training camp in England.
Only one outfield player, Declan Gallagher, is in his thirties. This is remarkable when one considers there were seven outfield players in that bracket the last time Scotland played at a major finals in 1998.
Admittedly, Scotland were one of the older squads at France 98 and the demands of the game, at international as well as club level, means the age profile of teams is getting lower. It is still a major statement of intent on Clarke’s part.
“I think it’s great for the future," he explained. "You think that it has taken us so long to qualify for a tournament and hopefully all these guys who go to this tournament experience the atmosphere in the summer, get a taste for it and want to go to the next one in Qatar."
As a coach, he is relishing the challenge of making tweaks to a midfield deprived of McLean and Ryan Jack. It is not impossible that he might consider utilising the 19-year-old Gilmour’s ball-retention skills by deploying him in front of the back four.
Several questions remain despite the 26 answers delivered by Clarke yesterday. One thing is certain - history lies within the grasp of this group.
“They were all heroes when they came out of Serbia, they were fantastic and everything was great,” said Clarke. “But if we become the first men’s team to qualify for the knock-out stages of a major tournament they can be legends, so why not aim for that?”