Possibly I was not the only one who, upon hearing Declan Rice had been named Republic of Ireland young player of the year days after switching allegiance to England, smiled and thought: that sounds like the kind of ridiculous thing that would happen to Scotland.
The relief at having avoided being the butt of a joke in this instance did not last long. Scotland excel when it comes to farce. Later that same day, just hours after he was excluded from the Scotland squad for next week’s Euro 2020 qualifiers against Kazakhstan and San Marino on the supposed grounds he was injured, Steven Fletcher raised the bar in miracle recoveries by featuring in goal bulletins across various media outlets, having struck the opener for Sheffield Wednesday in their 2-0 win over Bolton Wanderers.
“Good on him” was the initial response. It’s always gladdening to hear of Scots doing well in England and with the usual problems up front having been exacerbated by Leigh Griffiths’ current unavailability, it’s extra cheering when a striker does well. But then the realisation struck. Hang on, hadn’t we just been told Fletcher was omitted from the Scotland squad because he was injured? Here he was, literally hours afterwards, confusing the Tartan Army and those reporters present at Hampden earlier the same day by not only playing, but scoring what was, by all accounts, a deftly-finished goal.
His absence from the squad was viewed as a blow because, as welcome as it is seeing players such as Hibernian’s Marc McNulty being rewarded for good form, Fletcher is a tried and tested international striker. He soothed fears that Steven Naismith’s absence for the crucial games against Albania and Israel in November would derail Scotland’s hopes of finishing top of their Nations League group to clinch a play-off spot.
He started both games and was heavily involved as Alex McLeish’s side secured the pair of victories required. He hadn’t played for Scotland in over 12 months having already surrendered a portion of his international career after a fall-out with Craig Levein. Afterwards he spoke to a few of us and said he felt “fitter than I have been” and “very strong”. He was looking forward to building on the chance to re-establish himself in the side at a time when reaching a first major finals since 1998 seems a realistic possibility.
He has since played another 20 times for Wednesday, scoring six goals. It was reasonable to expect he would be available for selection when Scotland were next in action, particularly since it’s the beginning of a new qualifying phase and the Scots need to make the best possible start if they are to claim one of the top two spots in their group. With Griffiths and Naismith again absent, it’s not a stretch to imagine Fletcher would be in pole position to lead the line. Not only is he playing, he’s scoring – Scotland have turned to strikers with a lot less going for them in the recent past.
But they are having to make do without out him because, as an SFA spokesman tried to explain while being besieged by calls following news of the 31 year-old’s goal on Tuesday night, Fletcher is “managing injury issues”. Managing injury issues apparently includes playing 84 minutes of a game in one of the most physical leagues in the world. He’ll likely play again today when Wednesday host Blackburn Rovers.
It’s hightly unlikely Fletcher initiated this plan to remove himself from the selection equation, particularly since his international ambitions are ablaze once more – or so it seemed. Pressure is likely to have been exerted on him from the Sheffield Wednesday hierarchy, whose financial plan for the club is hinged on securing promotion as quickly as possible – the club have been selling season tickets for the Premier League in an income-boosting scheme despite currently lying in 11th position.
The same goes for Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser and Cardiff City cult hero Callum Paterson, who have requested to be excluded from Thursday’s assignment in Astana because of the synthetic surface and likely after a firm nudge from their managers, Eddie Howe and Neil Warnock respectively. Both players are pivotal to their clubs’ bid to stay in the most lucrative competition in world football, the Premier League. While Bournemouth are almost certain to survive, each higher place is worth an extra few million pounds.
This is what Scotland are up against. He who pays the piper calls the tune. McLeish was asked to give a simple answer to a simple question on Tuesday during his briefing with daily newspaper journalists: had anyone other than retiring goalkeeper Allan McGregor informed him they were unavailable for selection?
“No,” he answered firmly. But several other players effectively had, albeit probably under orders.