James McFadden: We never gave up on Steven Naismith

Steven Naismith watches on as Chris Martin's strike finds the net against Slovenia at Hampden
Steven Naismith watches on as Chris Martin's strike finds the net against Slovenia at Hampden
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It was back in June 2007, as a substitute in a friendly away to the Faroe Islands, that Steven Naismith earned his first Scotland cap. It was in March 2017, when coming off the bench in the World Cup qualifying victory at home to Slovenia, that the attacker appeared to have earned his final cap. Yet any international obituaries penned in the intervening period for the 31-year-old were always premature, according to Scotland No 2 James McFadden.

These were written after Alex McLeish overlooked the forward for the first four matches of his second spell as national boss that brought a double-header in March against Costa Rica and Hungary and the summer tour of Peru and Mexico. McLeish then appeared to be picking up the new broom with which interim manager Malky Mackay had swept as he selected a younger, fresher squad for the November friendly against the Netherlands that marked the first post-Gordon Strachan fixture.

Scotland assistant manager James McFadden looks ahead to the upcoming friendlies against Belgium and Portugal

Scotland assistant manager James McFadden looks ahead to the upcoming friendlies against Belgium and Portugal

These omissions were taken as evidence that any chances for Naismith to add to the 46 caps he gained over that decade had ended along with the tenure of Strachan 11 months ago. A staple of Strachan’s squads, he made the bench in the final week of the manager’s tenure for a World Cup win over Malta. When it couldn’t be married with success in Slovenia, it appeared that the union of both Strachan and Naismith with the national squad was over.

Now, it seems certain that the 31-year-old only endured a separation. A zinging start to the season by the Hearts forward, who was at his scamping, snarling and, at times indeed, cynical, best in the victory over Celtic last week, has led to his name being pencilled in for a friendly with Belgium in little more than a fortnight. A test that will be used as preparation for the country’s Nations League opener at home to Albania on 10 September.

The paucity of attacking options that leaves McLeish with only Celtic’s Leigh Griffiths, Oli McBurnie of Swansea City West Brom’s Matt Phillips, and Johnny Russell plying his trade at MLS club Sporting Kansas City, undoubtedly assists Naismith’s case. But McFadden maintains that, regardless, Naismith’s case had never been dismissed. Certainly not by the man who gave him his Scotland debut – McLeish only five months into his first spell in charge of the team.

“We’ve never said Steven Naismith is done with Scotland. Naisy is still only 31,” said McFadden. “He’s been forgotten about because he hasn’t played. He went to Norwich and it didn’t work out for him. Last season he maybe didn’t have a full pre-season or play enough games. When he came up to Hearts he looked a bit short of sharpness. He looked as if he was needing time to get up to speed but he certainly started the season well and looks sharp now.

“He’s experienced, he knows how to play a number of positions in international football. And like the manager has said since we came in – nobody will be discounted regardless of age. As long as they’re playing well and eligible for Scotland, we’ll definitely have a look at them.”

Naismith featured only once in Strachan’s final World Cup campaign, he was an unused substitute in five of the qualifiers but it did not dim his desire to turn up for his country. His enthusiasm, so vital a feature in his game, is a commodity that the Scotland No 2 believes is precious for the squad and that burns as brightly in Naismith as ever.

“Steven has always wanted to continue playing for Scotland,” said McFadden. “There has never been any vibe to the contrary. Myself and the manager have spoken to Naisy. As far as I’m aware there’s been no intimation that he wants to give up on it.

“It’s great to have guys like that who want to play. And not because it might enhance their reputation – just because they want to do well for Scotland. That’s what we need, guys who will pull in that same direction. Naisy certainly falls into that category.”

The category he also falls into is a player that can feature in forward areas. Jason Cummings was not so very long ago such a player, but now he is in danger of falling through the cracks following an unremarkable Rangers loan spell that has given way to a drop down to League One with Peterborough United as he seeks regular game time he won’t be given at parent club Nottingham Forest. For all that McFadden might feel Scotland are good enough to win a Nations League group that has them pitted against Albania and Israel, and for all that he may be encouraged with the growth in candidates north and south of the border, the issues in the striking department remain acute. Scotland’s one-time goalscoring talisman is not oblivious to that.

“McBurnie as been involved. Started the season for Swansea, scored a goal,” he said. “Jason Cummings has gone to Peterborough, he will need to get games because that is what he has lacked since he left Hibs, which is a long time. He has not had a regular game anywhere. He will need to get fit and get scoring goals to come back into the reckoning.

“Johnny Russell came in and was excellent against Mexico. He has been carrying a little knock. Naisy has started the season strongly. He looks sharp. There are places up for grabs in the striking role. We need guys playing regularly and scoring goals.

“We do have an idea who we are going to have in the squad but there are no guarantees, it is up to the players to force their way into the national side.

“Contrary to belief outside Scotland the league [here] is strong and we are happy with the players that we have and also with the guys playing in the English Premier and Championship because we know they are good enough. The guys up here: it is maybe clubs down there turning their noses up at them but they are good enough. We have seen John McGinn go down the road [to Aston Villa] and have an excellent debut. I am excited about what we can achieve because of the players that we have at our disposal.” In Naismith, Scotland will have someone still excited about being one of those players.