Alex McLeish’s message to Scots strikers - let battle commence

Alex McLeish has urged his strikers to continue proving themselves at club level. Picture: Steve Welsh.
Alex McLeish has urged his strikers to continue proving themselves at club level. Picture: Steve Welsh.
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Leigh Griffiths is a feisty character and was never likely to take the assertion he was no longer Scotland’s No 1 striker lying down.

Alex McLeish has welcomed the positive response but stopped short of offering him any assurances other than including him among four forwards in his latest squad.

Griffiths registered very clearly his disappointment at McLeish’s comments following the win against Albania that Steven Naismith, who scored once that night and helped force an own goal, was now in the box seat to start next Thursday’s Nations League clash against Israel.

Griffiths later described the news as a “kick in the teeth” for him and the other strikers hoping to force their way into the team for the double-header, with Portugal due at Hampden in a friendly three days later. But he pledged to make it impossible for the manager to ignore him.

McLeish has claimed, with a playful smile on his face, that he has since phoned Griffiths but the striker did not return his call. He added that they will address the matter when he joins up with the squad on Sunday.

“I haven’t spoke to Leigh since the last game,” he said. “I tried to call him, but he blanked me! I’ll see him when he comes here.”

Griffiths started the friendly against Belgium last month before being replaced at half-time and was dropped to the bench three days later against Albania. He came on for the last 20 minutes as a replacement for Johnny Russell. Afterwards McLeish hailed Naismith and suggested he would remain first choice providing he maintains both form and fitness in the weeks ahead for his club.

The Hearts striker has since scored two goals in four appearances for the league leaders. He now stands on ten goals for the season in only 14 appearances for club and country.

Griffiths, meanwhile, has scored three in his last five appearances for Celtic, two of which have been match-winners, having been restored to the starting line-up. McLeish is delighted with the reaction and rowed back from comments suggesting Naismith’s place was the striker’s 
to lose.

“I think that you’ve always got to prove yourself,” said the manager. “I didn’t say to anybody after the last international ‘you’ll definitely be playing in the next game’.

“You give yourself a chance and that’s all you can ask for. What I saw in Leigh’s final sentence was ‘it is up to us to prove that we’re good enough’ and then he goes out and bangs in three goals. That’s great, that’s the kind of positivity we’re looking for and the type of reaction. We want to see that kind of Scottish mentality coming to the fore.”

McLeish is relishing what is becoming a battle among strikers to nail down a place in the side. He included the returning Oli McBurnie in the list as well as Sporting Kansas City’s Johnny Russell, who has again retained his place in the squad.

“Every time I’ve come and spoken to you guys you have been asking where the goals are going to come from?” he said.

“Now, I’m not saying that because they are scoring for their clubs they are going to score hundreds of goals for Scotland. I hope they do. But certainly, it can’t be bad that McBurnie before the last squad was in goalscoring form and came back on Saturday (for Swansea City) and made a couple of goals.

“Naisy has been in great form, and 
Leigh has hit back with three goals and started in the Celtic team in the last four games.

“Keep proving yourself. Leigh wasn’t getting chosen by Gordon (Strachan) for a while, then all of a sudden, he was in a rich vein of form for Celtic and Gordon called him up.

“He got two great goals against England and scored one or two others, and something the Scottish public has been craving for years is a top striker, a top goalscorer. Hopefully we’ve got two or three on the cusp. Oli has to get off the mark in the jersey, and then we’ll have real competition.”

McLeish’s mood has been further improved by a win in his first competitive match in charge since returning as manager.

Such is the format of the Nations League, in which Scotland have been drawn in a three-team group, another three points against Israel, currently ranked 94 in the world, would put McLeish’s side in a very strong position to qualify for the play-offs.

The manager has already been a member of a Scotland side that has triumphed in Israel, setting up the winner for Kenny Dalglish with a headed flick from a corner in a World Cup qualifying win in Ramat Gan in 1981.

“Jock (Stein) went three at the back, then Willie (Miller) came on at half-time because it was a shambles in the first half,” recalled McLeish. “We were under the cosh from the Israeli team and somehow we got in at 0-0. The second half looked a bit better. Willie was on and Kenny (Burns) was moved into midfield. We got the corner and, fortunately, got away with a tricky one-niler.”

Whether Naismith, Griffiths or someone else gets the all-important goal, something similar next week would be more then useful as Scotland seek to build on a promising start to the campaign.