As depressing as any aspect of the fall-out from Scotland’s most recent travails was the griping about Andrew Robertson. It’s true that the Liverpool full-back did not play well in the defeats by Russia and Belgium. However, there appeared an element of the tall poppy syndrome about the way sections of the Tartan Army went after him for his displays.
Predictably, the accusation levelled at the 24-year-old is he is not the same player for Scotland as he is for Liverpool. To which, surely, the obvious answer would be: how could he possibly be when you contrast the world-class personnel around him at club level and the modest talents around him in dark blue?
Robertson’s scintillating goal in the Champions League holders’ topsy-turvy 4-3 win over Salzburg in midweek will be considered grist to the mill for his detractors, who have even led Jurgen Klopp to petition that his player be cut some slack on international duty.
The fact is that Robertson simply won’t be spared the flak when Steve Clarke’s men face Russia in Moscow on Thursday before hosting San Marino three days later. It’s a double-header that is irrelevant in terms of the now-extinguished hope of qualifying via the standard Euro 2020 qualifying route. The games now appear to be simply tune-up outings for the Nations League play-off semi-final in March.
Yet the left-back’s midweek goal was a perfect example of why his role for Liverpool cannot be replicated for Scotland, with the 24-year-old darting half the length of the pitch in starting and finishing the sort of high-speed, one-touch move that is the Klopp trademark but not the game that Scotland would dare attempt to play.
Robertson has elevated our game by becoming the first Scot in 22 years to play in a winning side in the Champions League final, hauling himself up to the highest echelons from the most humble beginning and in the process demanding acknowledgement as one of the finest attacking full-backs on the planet. He deserves to be celebrated in these borders as opposed to being sniped over. However, his international manager Clarke – ever the pragmatist – recognises there is only one way to prevent him being the easiest, high-profile target for any opprobrium flying around.
“Listen, when you don’t win matches you are going to be crucified,” he said. “Andy is experienced enough to realise that. He is the captain and the one who gets it. But it is unfair. It’s unfair to single out Andy Robertson and say that he should take the criticism. Everyone should take the criticism. It’s a collective thing. I have spoken to Andy since, we had a good chat and he is fine.”
In becoming the latest celebrated Scottish footballer to have his international performance levels questioned, Robertson is at least keeping good company. Jimmy Johnstone was never accepted by the Scotland support, and admitted himself he was never as at home on the wing for the nation as with his beloved Celtic. And it seems astonishing now to consider that Kenny Dalglish suffered in such fashion when he was in his pomp with a Liverpool side that were the kingpins in Europe.
“There is always going to be certain criticism – Alan Hansen wasn’t good enough to play for Scotland either,” said Clarke archly. “The best way to avoid the criticism is to get points, to win matches and draw matches you are expected to lose. That just makes everyone feel a little bit better. It’s the same in club football. Winning covers a multitude of sins. If you start to win matches everyone will be on board and more positive about it. they will stop talking about the players who are not selected and instead speak about the ones who are.”
Clarke elected to stand by the majority of the squad that have provided him with no real bounce in his first six months in charge which have produced only one streaky win at home to Cyprus, and three chastening losses, albeit two were to No.1 ranked nation Belgium.
“Short-term I’m looking at four games to get back to a winning way, too get the team winning again and to get a little bit more positivity around the national team,” Clarke said. “I can have a look at different things, but I won’t be pulling up trees and throwing everything out and trying to start again, because we don’t have that luxury, we don’t have that time. I believe in this squad of players, I believe they’re good enough to qualify via the play-offs if that’s the option we have to take. I don’t think it is time for experiments.”