There was a telling rejoinder from Alex McLeish when it was put to the Scotland manager yesterday that the influence of sports scientists wasn’t making his job any easier. “Tell me about it,” he said ruefully.
Amid the fall-out from the debacle in Kazakhstan, the feeling has persisted that the lowest point in the country’s 147-year international football history has arrived as the pain threshold players are willing to tolerate to turn out for their nation is lower than ever before.
McLeish told a story yesterday that suggested he considers he would have missed out on the greatest night of his playing career were medical concerns as paramount back then as they patently are now.
The 60-year-old revealed he put his back out in the lead-up to Aberdeen’s Cup Winners’ Cup triumph over Real Madrid in Gothenburg 36 years ago. Yet, he played anyway. He may believe there are good reasons for his having to field the youngest Scotland side since the 1970s on Thursday night. A situation forced on him, in part, by the absence of such as Steven Fletcher – who asked to be excused from the squad – and Ryan Fraser and Callum Paterson. The latter pair are now in Italy for today’s San Marino encounter after being ruled out from playing on the plastic pitch at the Astana Arena.
Yet, it is doubtful that all three would have missed any club game in such circumstances. Fletcher has played all 21 of Sheffield Wednesday’s matches since he was such an effective focal point for Scotland’s attack to earn the country Nations League success with the victories over Albania and Israel in November. “It was just personal,” McLeish said of the 31-year-old’s decision to miss this opening Euro 2020 double header. “He was desperate to come but his body had taken a battering.”
So did McLeish’s body across his 20-year career. But he played through whatever ailed him, no occasion more so than that Cup Winners’ Cup final. “I was telling Kieran [Tierney, out with a pelvic problem] and some of the lads the other night how I had a back problem going into the Gothenburg final,” he said.
“We just didn’t have the medical people back then. Had we had a sports scientist I wouldn’t have played, I would not have been able to play. I wouldn’t have got that medal. A couple of weeks before the final we were having work done in the back garden in Aberdeen, and I bought paving stones. I carried them around the back instead of rolling them. I felt my back go and the guy who dropped them off was like: ‘you’re meant to roll them, ya mug’.
“Anyway, for the next ten days I needed intense treatment. I had to tell Fergie [Alex Ferguson] what I’d done and of course the response wasn’t favourable. But I worked really hard to get fit – there was no way I was going to miss the final. For the two nights before the game on the Wednesday I actually slept with the mattress on the floor.”
McLeish accepts he does not have the same “autonomy” that he had in his first spell in charge a decade ago when it comes to cajoling players to put their backs into turning out for their country with niggles. He has to be governed by what SFA head of elite performance Graeme Jones tells him – and the fact it is the governing body’s policy not to give players injections of the sort that have allowed Fletcher to play for his club.
“I took injections as well but nobody forced me to do that,” the Scotland manager said. “I took them because I was desperate to play and that was the difference. These days I’m pretty alright. I have a chronic hip but that was nothing do to with any injections.
“It’s because of groin pain I had where I wake up every morning stiff, like how Billy Connolly tells it when you scream getting out of bed.”
McLeish is entitled to give a silent scream at how cosseted players appear when it comes to representing Scotland. He said it is “definitely something worth debating” as to whether sports science adjudications on the fitness of players has gone too far.
“But we are guided by the medical people,” he said. “If they say to us a player is out I can’t ask to talk to him to try and persuade him. He’s out and that’s it. It’s a firm decision and it’s not one that’s up for debate where I can bring him in by hook or by crook. I mean, Kieran was here and we lost him, but he stayed with us until Friday night.
“That’s not my department [when it comes to saying medical people are erring on the side of caution]. I’ve got to abide by what they say. So there is no room for debate on that. If Graeme Jones and the doc come to me and say we can’t take a player for a certain reason, that’s the way it is.
“I did speak to Fletcher personally, and then I asked Faddy [James McFadden] to give him a ring, but Fletch was adamant in himself that he needed to get a bit of recuperation in the international break. Of course that’s frustrating.
“You saw what he contributed when he came, with his experience. He gave us that in the November fixtures but there’s nothing we can do about that in these games so we have to get on with it. We wanted him in, because he strengthens us.
“Sometimes, way back in the day, I would have said ‘I shouldn’t have played in that game.’ That was probably after I had a stinker… Other times I would say ‘I’m glad I played,’ but these days the clubs are the most important in terms of paying the players’ wages.”
Scotland do have a degree of recourse with the FIFA five-day rule. If they chose to enforce that, they could prevent players turning out for their clubs for that period subsequent to the end of any international period. McLeish claimed he would have no issue applying this rule, and previously considered it with an unnamed player. “We will do it if we feel we have a good case,” he said, stressing the individual was not Fletcher. “We did speak about it recently but decided it wasn’t the right situation to do it.”
Now, McLeish finds himself in a desperate situation. The shockingly dismal display that condemned Scotland to their 3-0 loss in Kazakhstan felt like a point of no return. He won’t countenance that, of course. “I’m not in this for Alex McLeish,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot of highs and lows, had a fair bit of success but been knocked down a few times as well, with the resilience to get back up. And that’s where we are again.”