In that sense, the selection made by Steve Clarke for next week’s friendly in Turkey betrays meagre times for all too many of the nation’s midfield mainstays. Scroll back only a year and, in John McGinn, Billy Gilmour, Callum McGregor and Scott McTominay, the Scotland manager had a quartet of central performers he and the group’s employers could hang their hats on. Clarke is still in that bracket, but the chapeaus have slipped at club level for all but currently sidelined Celtic captain McGregor.
Five-and-a-half months before Scotland begin their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign at home to Cyprus, the Scotland manager may be relaxed about any developments in their day jobs for his personnel. But it is far from ideal that in the three matches since Steven Gerrard was relieved of his duties at Aston Villa, club captain and Scotland talisman McGinn hasn’t made a starting XI. Or that this is the case with Manchester United’s last eight games for McTominay. Their challenges are eclipsed by the travails of Gilmour. Prior to playing the whole match for Brighton in the 3-1 Carabao Cup win over Arsenal this week, he had earned only 14 senior minutes since his move from Chelsea in the summer. It is entirely possible the trio’s situations won’t alter greatly when club football resumes at the end of next month following the World Cup shutdown. Clarke, though, refuses to contemplate such a turn of events.
“When you are playing for top clubs with a lot of top players in the squad, rotation is normal,” he said. “John McGinn has suddenly found a wee spell out the team but I’m sure he will get back in it. Scott McTominay is similar – not quite starting regularly for Manchester United but getting plenty of minutes off the bench. The only one you are looking at is young Billy Gilmour. I had a good chat with him and he knows he is going to work hard to get in the Brighton team. They are a good team and they have good players in midfield that are hopefully going to push Billy to another level. He has time on his side and a lot can change between now and March. It’s important for me to keep Billy involved because I see him as a key player moving forward and maybe I’ll give him a few more minutes on the pitch than he’s getting at Brighton at the minute.
“Billy has done really well for us. At one stage it looked as though he was about to take off but his career has hit a little hiccup – but everybody’s career does. I remember I got dropped a few times as well, it happens. You have just got to get on with it. You have got to knuckle down and prove you’re good enough to get in the team. One hundred per cent [he is still young, at 21] . He has time on his side.”
On the flip side, Lewis Ferguson is starting to motor with Bologna following his £3m close season move from Aberdeen, with five straight starts and two goals over the past month. Clarke jokingly takes a little credit for that upturn. “I spoke to Lewis before the September camp,” said the Scotland manager. “He wasn’t in the Bologna team at the time. He carried a suspension when he went over so he missed the first couple of games. The team struggled and the manager that took him there lost his job. I spoke to him and said, ‘I could bring you along but you probably won’t get too many minutes for us. It’s better for you to stay there, impress the new manager, get in the team, score a few goals and then I’ll pick you in November.’ And that’s how it worked out. Not bad, eh?”
Scotland squad: Goalkeepers - Craig Gordon, Liam Kelly, Robbie McCrorie; Defenders - Grant Hanley, Jack Hendry, Scott McKenna, Ryan Porteous, Calvin Ramsay, Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney; Midfielders - Stuart Armstrong, Lewis Ferguson, Billy Gilmour, Ryan Jack, John McGinn, Kenny McLean, Scott McTominay; Forwards: Che Adams, Jacob Brown, Ryan Christie, Lyndon Dykes, Ryan Fraser.