Alex McLeish: I wish I had spoken to Darren Fletcher earlier

Scotland manager Alex McLeish announcing his squad to face Israel and Portugal. Pic: SNS
Scotland manager Alex McLeish announcing his squad to face Israel and Portugal. Pic: SNS
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It is a convention of international football in Scotland that almost as much chat is given over to those not playing as those in contention. Right now, though, that seems understandable with the absentee list appearing to take on concerning proportions.

The fact that he requires to spend time on such issues does not exasperate Alex McLeish. It does, however, tell the Scotland manager he is operating in a very different era from the one that saw him desperate – but thwarted in his bid – to add to his 77 caps after he had reached the age of 35.

McLeish, pictured, accepts that the Scotland team he will select for Thursday’s Nations League tie against Israel in Haifa might be lacking the anchor man that Scott Brown was for his country before his international retirement last season. He also accepts that his options in midfield generally have been squeezed by Crystal Palace midfielder James McArthur asking not to be selected and Tom Cairney not being available. McLeish said last week that Scotland were “vulnerable” to an approach from England for the English-born Fulham schemer with a Scottish father – which didn’t exactly bring a flat denial from Gareth Southgate over his interest in a player who has made only a couple of friendly appearances in dark blue.

At the other end of the spectrum is former Scotland captain Darren Fletcher. Consistently overlooked by McLeish, there is an admission from the national manger that he could have better handled the situation with a true patriot whose commitment to the country’s cause has been beyond question over a career that has yielded 80 caps and leaves Fletcher third most honoured on the all-time Scotland list, behind Kenny Dalglish and Jim Leighton and just ahead of McLeish.

“I spoke to Darren when I first came in and said I would look at younger boys over the four games including the South American tour,” the national coach said. “I hadn’t had dialogue with him for a few months but spoke again last week and said I hadn’t retired anyone.

“I never retired – I’m still available! I had an injury and we qualified for Euro 92 and my last game had been Malta at Ibrox. Andy [Roxburgh] and Craig [Brown] invited me to the Euros as part of the group as a cheerleader as I was still injured. Then I was back playing with Aberdeen and wanted a call-up, but I never actually retired.

“I said that to Darren – don’t ever retire. You just never know what happens. I wanted to give him clarity because I believe he was on the TV last month [as part of Sky Sports’ coverage of the Scotland games] and it was a bit awkward for him. It’s better we have communication. That’s part of my make-up and I believe I’m pretty good at that. I just wish I had done it earlier.”

The 34-year-old Stoke City midfielder can then be set apart from others choosing not to put themselves forward for the Scotland midfield. McLeish believes that the risk and reward equation is different from his playing era. “I’ve noticed that [more players in their early 30s are retiring from international football] Surely you want to play forever?

“It didn’t happen in our day [players retiring prematurely from the national side]. Then again I never got paid the riches these guys get. I’m not saying it’s about money but these guys have multi-million pound contracts. James McArthur clearly has a problem with his back, let’s not dispute that because it’s not fabrication. For him to get through a season of Premier League and cups… he’s out at the moment.

“It’s similar to Broony [Scott Brown]. Scott has tremendous experience and you lose that nous in that role. We went with big Kevin McDonald [in that role against Costa Rica and Belgium] and I’d seen a lot of him over the last few years [for Fulham] and he’s done well.

“Maybe you can grow into that role and there are one or two other who could play it but there will be times we can also look at 3-4-3. If we play the three in midfield and you have that central hub then at the moment Kevin is the most experienced.

“It was a blow to lose Scott but I could see his reasons. When I spoke to him he said he could put in three-quarters to Scotland and three-quarters to Celtic and he had to be loyal to the guys who pay his wages.

”James is a very experienced player and has a lot of that nous. It does mean that he knows pretty much everything about the game, where to go, he has played 4-4-2, two central midfielders, the holding role where he picks his moment. He has played the No.10 and he has played wide. He is very good at them all. He is effortless and I would love to have had him involved. That’s a missing link and it’s up to the guys who have come in to take up the mantle.

“James has ruled himself out [but] he didn’t say forever. He is feeling the strain from constant back pain and I think he’s been playing with a strapping on it. He signed a new deal with Palace and said that if he was required down the road he wasn’t saying he was quitting. But for the moment he’s decided not to play for us.”