Alex McLeish reveals his admiration for Fulham’s Tom Cairney

Peter Grant, James McFadden and Stevie Woods join Alex McLeish at Hampden. They've been preparing for Friday's friendly with Costa Rica. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
Peter Grant, James McFadden and Stevie Woods join Alex McLeish at Hampden. They've been preparing for Friday's friendly with Costa Rica. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
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Scotland for too long have been a middle of the road team. For the first game of his second spell in charge, Alex McLeish has them looking more like a middle of the park side.

All told, 13 of his 27-man squad for the friendlies at home to Costa Rica and away to Hungary in the next ten days, are midfielders.

“Six of them are forwards…” McLeish joked the other day when the potential appearance of imbalance was put to him. “There’s a glut of midfielders and let’s be honest, there were four or five I could have picked over and above the 13.

“Guys like Graeme Shinnie can consider themselves unlucky but he’s competing with some good players, especially the way I want to play. But there’s a real fight for the midfield positions. And there are one or two of the experienced guys who are definitely not out of the plans. We need them to guide and help the young players to find their feet in international football.”

Even with no Darren Fletcher, James McArthur and James Morrison, the squeeze in the middle owing to the numbers is likely to have him reshape the system Scotland play. As will his desire to accommodate left-backs Kieran Tierney and Andrew Robertson.

The Celtic youngster is likely to be used on the left of a back three, which will allow Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna to have an experienced performer such as Russell Martin – if fit – on the right of a three.

With Robertson one wing-back, James Forrest could be slotted in on the other side, leaving four midfield roles. Two of these could be filled by Fulham pair Tom Cairney and Kevin McDonald, the latter sitting, with another midfield position available that could be filled by player-of-the-month Scott McTominay. A further central performer, such as Callum McGregor, could then push forward and link with a central striker – as he did to good effect in Celtic’s first-leg Europa League victory over Zenit St Petersburg.

“Kevin [McDonald] has been playing a very specific position and I’ve never seen him have a bad game,” said McLeish. “You can only go on your eye and your judgment of how you perceive a player and I’ve been saying to people privately ‘Can no-one else see this?’ He caught my eye, as did Cairney – I thought these two guys could play for Scotland.

“Cairney has been a good provider, Kevin has been an anchor. We’ve used Scott [Brown] as an anchor over the past few years and he’s grown into a terrific footballer over the years with his knowledge and position sense.

“You get that as you get older, and although I’m not saying McDonald will step right into Scott’s boots, I was very keen if I became Scotland coach to have a really good look at this guy in the national team.”

McLeish has put in the miles and games to draw together a squad that he wants to replicate their club form “and go higher again” while feeling comfortable in the international environment to express themselves.

“It’s massive that we create a winning mentality and we’ll strive to do that from day one. As soon as we meet them, they’ll be aware of what we want and where we believe they can go. There has to be an improvement. Gordon [Strachan] took them to a good level but we’re going to try to improve that.

“I felt there was a chance to freshen things up and look at the younger players because there has been a clamour for them to get a chance. The squad’s half and half between Scottish and English based players, but I saw an Edinburgh derby last week and I saw a really good Hibs team. Hearts did their best to contain them but it didn’t feel like there was a bad Hibs player.”