The big panic surrounding the Scottish national team over the last couple of years has been the dearth of options at centre-back. We seem to have become so fixated on this issue that we’re missing another potential problem coming up swiftly in the rearview mirror.
The future is beginning to appear a lot brighter in the heart of the defence, if developments across this season are anything to go by. Jack Hendry, John Souttar and Scott McKenna have all become three of the better players at their position in the Scottish top flight, while there’s also David Bates and Ross McCrorie at Rangers, not to mention Liam Lindsay, who apparently is now worth £6million having left Partick Thistle for Barnsley last summer. All of these guys are 22 or younger, and it stands to reason that at least two of them should develop enough to become solid centre-backs for the national team.
But forget about the figurative last line of defence, what about the literal last line of defence: the goalkeeper. Since Craig Gordon’s commendable return to international football after it seemed like the former Hearts stopper was going to be forced into retirement, we’ve both waxed lyrical and lamented the fact that our stand-out position in terms of talent depth was the one area where it was impossible to play more than a single player at a time.
Gordon, David Marshall and Allan McGregor have all spent time between the sticks in recent seasons. They’ll all great keepers but they’re not getting any younger. McGregor is 36, Gordon is 35, and while the 32-year-old Marshall should still has a few good years in him yet, he’s fallen behind McGregor in the pecking order at Championship side Hull City.
Unlike centre-back, there isn’t a new crop of young goalkeepers demanding our immediate attention. Jack Hamilton and Zander Clark once vied for the under-21 goalkeeping position, but the former has lost his starting role and the latter only won his back in October and is almost in a rotation with veteran team-mate Alan Mannus at St Johnstone. Scott Bain’s form has dropped significantly over the past two seasons, and Ryan Fulton is the only under-21 goalkeeper even close to top flight football, as he backs up Gary Woods at Hamilton Accies. Millwall keeper Jordan Archer remains the best hope for a long-term No.1, as the 24-year-old has impressed with Millwall over recent seasons, but we’ll soon be needing more than that around the squad.
Step forward Jon McLaughlin. The Edinburgh-born stopper has been a terrific signing for the Gorgie Road club since joining on a one-year deal last summer. So much so that Craig Levein doesn’t hold out much hope of keeping him as Championship clubs have already made pre-contract offers.
He’s made only one notable mistake - when he let a Blair Spittal daisy-cutter trundle through his legs at Firhill - and has pulled off countless impressive stops. In terms of the advanced statistics, McLaughlin has been the most impressive goalkeeper in the Scottish top flight this term. According to Scottish football analysis website TwoPointOne, he should be conceding 1.63 times per game based on the quality of shots he’s facing, but he’s actually only letting in 0.77 goals per 90 minutes. It’s the biggest discrepancy between the two stats of anyone in the league.
Aside from his shot-stopping, one of the most impressive characteristics of his goalkeeping is the manner in which he carries himself. There’s real authority there. He commands his box, makes the right decisions on crosses and through balls, and has excellent handling. It’s no wonder the Hearts fans love him.
This isn’t to say he should be installed as Scotland’s No.1. For the upcoming double-header, McGregor should probably have that honour. He’s been there before and is playing regularly at a slightly higher level. The same goes for Archer. However, with Gordon set to miss out through injury, and Marshall still likely to be sat on the bench, it should be McLaughlin joining McGregor and Archer in the squad. He’d certainly deserve it.