Matt Phillips eager to explode myth Scotland are ‘weak up front’

Having scored his first international goal while playing in the No 9 role against Hungary, Matt Phillips hopes manager Steve Clarke will select him to do the same job against Russia and Belgium. Picture: SNS.
Having scored his first international goal while playing in the No 9 role against Hungary, Matt Phillips hopes manager Steve Clarke will select him to do the same job against Russia and Belgium. Picture: SNS.
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It is a question incessantly posed by the Tartan Army. Who can become Scotland’s recognised outright striker?

The fact that the national team have not reached a major finals since the World Cup in 1998 is a patent sign that there is no obvious answer.

Oli McBurnie, Callum Paterson, Eamonn Brophy and Oli Burke have all had a shot at leading the line in the opening four Euro 2020 qualifiers so far.

With Hearts striker Steven Naismith not capable of playing 90 minutes due to a recent hamstring injury, according to his club manager Craig Levein, and Celtic’s Leigh Griffiths left out by national manager Steve Clarke, that responsibility could fall on West Brom forward Matt Phillips’ shoulders in the forthcoming Group I visits of Russia and Belgium.

After all, Phillips, a versatile player who is noted for causing havoc on the wings, scored his only goal for Scotland playing in the No 9 position in the 1-0 friendly victory over Hungary in March last year.

While Scotland also have a £20 million striker in Sheffield United’s McBurnie they can call on, Phillips knows all too well that Scotland are not blessed with a surfeit of options up front, especially when in comparison to the riches at Clarke’s disposal in the middle of the park.

However, the 28-year-old, who has scored two goals in six appearances for the Baggies this term, would at least be keen to try to change that perception should he be given the nod on Friday evening against the Russians.

“The No 9 position is the one where I’ve not played as much as the others but it’s one I enjoyed,” Phillips remarked. “I
got my first goal for Scotland playing in that role and I enjoyed that.

“It will be down to where the manager sees fit to play me.

“Scoring the goals on the pitch can change that view that we’re weak up front.

“We have a week’s training now, which is an opportunity for us to improve in that area and put that to bed.”

Victory against Russia is regarded as imperative to Scotland’s hopes of qualifying from the group following March’s damaging 3-0 loss in Kazakhstan in the opening match.

Even though the side could not lay a glove on Belgium in June’s 3-0 defeat, only days after beating Cyprus, there is a feeling that the national team are again moving in the right direction under former Kilmarnock manager Clarke’s stewardship.

Scotland still have the Uefa Nations League play-offs as a back-up qualification route but Phillips is adamant the group campaign can be 
salvaged.

“These are the games where you stand up and be counted,” said Phillips, who has won 14 caps since making his debut against the United States in 2012.

“We need a performance. That’s the direction where we are looking to go.

“I’m sure the atmosphere at Hampden will be brilliant.

“We’ve just got to take the positives from the previous games, put in a good performance and get some more points on the board.

“These are obviously two crucial games. Both are at home, so we have to go in with plenty of confidence and everyone giving 100 per cent.

“We will try to get the results we need.

“Things happen in football, but these are matches where we can get points and then we can look and see where we are placed.

“You never know what can happen. Other results can go our way, so we just have to put in two good performances.”

Phillips trained with the squad yesterday for the first time since missing June’s qualifiers, and is intrigued by what new manager Clarke has to offer.

“When a new manager comes in, the boys will take in his tactics and game plans and we’ll have a good week ahead of looking to put in a good performance,” he continued. “This is my first meet-up with the boys under the new manager and it’s going to be fresh ideas.

“Obviously, I know the boys from before. It might be a new way of playing and we just need to put in a performance.”

Phillips joins up with the Scotland squad on a high having helped West Brom make an unbeaten start to the English Championship season.

Slaven Bilic’s side are currently fourth in the table, two points adrift of the automatic promotion places.

Phillips is particularly relishing playing under Bilic following the Croatian’s appointment in June.

“I’m really enjoying the start,” he enthused. “I’ve got a new manager at club level and Bilic has been brilliant since he came in.

“He was sent off two games ago, but he’s chilled out around the club and has an aura. That got him the respect of everyone and things are looking good.

“I’ve had a fair few managers and he is right up there.”