Steven Fletcher has admitted he feared his chance to reach a major finals with Scotland had vanished amid serious injury and concerns over form.
Few would have disagreed with his reading of the situation. Fletcher’s eventful Scotland career did seem consigned to the past. His last appearance prior to his surprise return against Albania last weekend came in the latter stages of a World Cup qualifier in Slovenia, over a year ago.
He could not grab the goal that would have sent Scotland to a play-off on that occasion but he managed one in Saturday’s 4-0 victory over Albania before playing his part in the win over Israel four days later. It means Scotland can look forward to a semi-final play-off for Euro 2020 in March of that year.
Fletcher will turn 33 that month which underlines one complaint Scotland might have with this new, otherwise favourable format – the wait involved. Fletcher was already comfortably Scotland’s oldest outfield player in the last two games. But he says he feels as feel as fit as ever and very much plans to still be around to take part in the play-off.
Before then, of course, he has a standard qualifying campaign in which to try to secure an automatic berth at Euro 2020 as well as improve a goalscoring record for Scotland that currently stands at ten in 33 appearances. He was also the last player before James Forrest to score a hat-trick at Hampden, netting three times against Gibraltar in 2015. He scored three against the same opponents in the reverse fixture in Faro the same year.
Fletcher is now relishing his second (or is it third?) chance at international level. The former Hibs player fell out of contention after sending a text to an SFA member of staff asking them to let then manager Craig Levein know he didn’t want to be selected for a friendly against Northern Ireland in 2011.
The striker was still miffed after being left out on a notorious night in Prague when Levein notoriously played a 4-6-0 formation.
Levein resolved not to select him again but eventually relented and Fletcher was recalled for qualifiers the following year against Wales and Belgium. His more recent lengthy absence has been largely because of injury, although Alex McLeish has seemed keen to see what Oli McBurnie, who has a similar style to Fletcher, can do.
It’s understandable if the Sheffield Wednesday striker, who has scored three times for his club this season, felt the chance of playing for Scotland in a major finals was now over – or even playing for his country again full stop. “I have just come back from knee surgery, which was a bit disappointing,” he said. “Apart from my ankle I have never really had major injuries, it has all been stupid little niggles.
“So I thought that was me and I would just try to get back to club level and see how I go from there. But I have came back and, while I wouldn’t say I am a new man, I feel very strong and fitter than I have been.
“I did look after myself when I was out and my missus’ cooking has been good!
“So I would like to stay involved as long as I can stay fit and sharp. As long as I feel I can offer something to the national team I will be happy to keep going.”
Judging by the player’s intelligent performances against Albania and Israel, McLeish, or anyone else, will be happy to have him. He offers something in terms of physical presence that players such as Leigh Griffiths and Steven Naismith do not.
Fletcher revealed he was watching through the cracks in his fingers after being replaced by Scott McTominay in the final minutes against Israel on Tuesday night, when Scotland were holding on to a 3-2 win. The long span of Fletcher’s international career – he made his debut over a decade ago v Croatia – means he has been involved before when late goals have cost Scotland.
“I was watching through my fingers on the bench thinking, ‘not again’,” he said. “But that shows the confidence these young boys have. You saw big Scott McKenna striding out at the end with the ball and he has no fear, which is good.
“I was probably creating (most of) that tension on the bench when I came off I was sitting there thinking I have seen this a lot of times before in my Scotland career, please not again. But these boys have no fear, which is great to see.”