Despite his own fitness fears Darren Fletcher yesterday expressed gratitude to Gordon Strachan for accepting blows on behalf of his players.
The Scotland skipper will leave it until this morning before deciding whether he is sufficiently recovered from a thigh knock to lead the team out in tonight’s Group F World Cup qualifier against Slovakia.
The heat has become more intense following Saturday’s 1-1 draw at home against Lithuania, when Fletcher sustained the injury that threatens his involvement tonight.
Two dropped points at home so early in the campaign has heaped pressure on Scotland to secure at least a draw from the clash in Trnava.
Strachan defended his players on Saturday. Asked yesterday why he feels so protective towards them, the manager replied: “I just like them. If you like your mates you’ll look after them.”
Fletcher in turn has stood up for his under-fire manager. The former Manchester United player compared Strachan to Sir Alex Ferguson for making sure criticism of them remains inside the dressing-room. Outside of those four walls, Strachan, like Ferguson, is intensely loyal.
“Alex Ferguson never once criticised a player in public in front of the press,” said Fletcher. “If we lost games, he blamed referees! No, we all know that what went on in the dressing room was different to the press.”
“This manager is exactly the same,” he added. “There are times when we have been told we are not good enough but there is no chance he would go out and say that publicly.
“On Saturday, he was calm and it was about going again for this big game. He wants to keep the group positive. He will be aware there is a little bit [of criticism] on the outside and it is important we have players in a positive mind-set who keep believing in themselves. He believes in us and it is up to us to go out there and respond to that.”
The 76-times capped West Bromwich Albion midfielder praised Strachan for “taking the blows” for the players, whose performance against Lithuania was roundly criticised.
But the greatest backlash was reserved for Strachan, who stood by his squad despite the deflating properties of Saturday’s result. The manager rated the second-half performance as “the best we’ve played for a long time” and described striker Chris Martin as “outstanding”.
Fletcher stressed now is a good time for the players to pay Strachan back for this support. He said: “All of the players have got great respect for the manager.
“We feel he always bats for us. He always tries to protect his players in the press.
“The players realise that and are very grateful. He’s always very honest with us in and amongst the group. He got a bit of stick for saying it wasn’t a must-win game at the weekend, but you can see why he says that.
“That’s not saying if we draw we will be alright or if we lose it’s alright. We were determined to win. But if you say it’s a must-win and then you don’t, what do you do then? Do we just not bother coming here?”
“It’s only the second game and there’s still plenty to play for,” he added.
Fletcher’s presence in Slovakia yesterday wasn’t a sign that he will definitely play tonight – he said he would have travelled even if just to watch and be part of the group.
But he is desperate to play an active part. “Obviously club games are important but representing your country is equally important,” he said.
“I don’t look to protect myself like that. If I am available to play and the manager wants me to play then I will be out there doing my best.”