Andrew Smith: Reluctance for national service nothing new

Former Scotland striker Steven Fletcher .
Former Scotland striker Steven Fletcher .
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One of the delights of football coverage across a number of newspapers in days of yore was the daily, one-frame sports cartoons superbly-crafted by the late Rod McLeod. Rarely did he nail a subject more piercingly than with a strip in the late 1980s that featured Richard Gough being congratulated over entry into the country’s footballing hall of fame for “50 Scotland call-offs”.

Gough’s then Rangers manager Graeme Souness had a reputation for encouraging players to withdraw from Scotland squads; and the centre-back seemed willing to acquiesce when the purpose of assembling was a friendly.

For all the furore then that has accompanied the decision of Leigh Griffiths to pull out of Alex McLeish’s pool for tonight’s Nation League qualifier in Israel in order to concentrate on his fitness, there is nothing new about Scotland being home to reluctant recruits for national service.

Neither, alas, is there anything unfamiliar about the desire to deal in absolutes that has been prompted by Griffiths excusing himself this week. A context wherein nuance has proved, as it so often does in the Scottish game, anathema.

Hence some of the more frothy pronouncements that have followed. It has been claimed that his self-imposed exile could result in there being no way back for the 28-year-old in international football, with McLeish not “guaranteed” to pick him again amid doubts being expressed over international team-mates accepting him back and Scotland punters forgiving his snub.

These dire consequences have a familiar air to them. From not so very long ago. Oh, all of two months, in fact. Remember the absolutes stated about Dedryck Boyata having no way back at Celtic...with his manager...with his team-mates....with his club’s support subsequent to his refusal to play a Champions League qualifier? These, of course, turned out to be absolutely wide of the mark. Currently the Belgian is arguably his manager’s first pick and a player being lauded by all and sundry for his contribution.

An international parallel might be offered up by the wrangle between Steven Fletcher and Craig Levein in late 2011 that cost Scotland their most accomplished striker for more than a year.

Mercifully, McLeish and his staff have avoided the escalation that back then did the cause of Scotland, or indeed, Levein no favours even allowing for his legitimate grievance over Fletcher taking the huff and asking not to be considered.

None of this, though, should be misinterpreted as an any attempt to downplay the transgressive nature of Griffiths’ actions. It is altogether far from satisfactory the Celtic striker has declined his latest call-up. That fact is true whatever the rights or wrongs of McLeish dropping him for last month’s win against Albania following four goals in his previous four competitive Scotland starts – his unforgettable and freakishly good free-kick double against England igniting that run.

Yet, anyone who has watched Griffiths’ recent performances for Celtic would concur with what this complicated character has been at least open enough to acknowledge publicly since removing himself from the squad: his conditioning is altogether far from satisfactory. The player simply hasn’t looked to possess the engine – never mind the midriff muscle toning – to allow him to be the scamping, quicksilver figure he unmistakeably has been when at his best. There is one absolute here. His potency absolutely depends on these crucial attributes as well as his rare God-given gifts.

Griffiths is a flawed individual, but a man with a curious charm. He cannot continually be cut slack over his missteps because of his prowess, or quirkiness, but if ever there was a good time for him to take a break from Scotland, it is surely this week.

Justifiably, he would not have started against Israel, with the frontline blend of fit-to-burst pair Steven Naismith and Johnny Russell earning that right after their notable efforts in the victory over Albania last month.

Meanwhile, ticket sales for the friendly against Portugal at Hampden on Sunday suggest Griffiths is far from alone in feeling the encounter is one to body swerve. There are many from the past way beyond a certain Mr Gough who might have made their excuses over this one indeed.