Alex McLeish has hit back at suggestions that Scotland players were defecting under his charge, insisting there was “nothing sinister” in the spate of call-offs.
The national manager has had to cope with the loss of a raft of key players leading up to the decisive Nations League double-header that sees Scotland face Albania tonight in Shkoder, before Israel come to Hampden on Tuesday.
News of Kieran Tierney’s unavailability emerged just as Scotland were flying out yesterday – taking to nine the number of players who have dropped out of his squad.
“It is not something sinister, if you are trying to find a story out of this there is nothing there,” said McLeish.
Tierney’s exit, caused by a tight hamstring that the Scotland manager admitted could be related to playing on Livingston’s plastic pitch, followed on from the departures of John McGinn and Mikey Devlin in recent days.
“It is just something that is not in our control,” McLeish said. “It is a little bit of a freak. Kieran was bursting to play. His attitude was fantastic. But the medical from the doctor and physios decreed that he had to pull out.
“John McGinn was bursting to play. It is just bad luck, the boys have played to very high levels, they get pushed to the boundaries in training.
“They go into the red zone in training in certain moments and some of them pick up knocks and injuries and, unfortunately for us, we have had a lot of call-offs at the same time which is maybe extraordinary but there is nothing sinister in it. It is all genuine injuries. As I said, there is nothing sinister, so you don’t need to ask that question.”
Despite the diminished squad, McLeish recognises that failure to lead Scotland to the Euro 2020 play-offs through the Nations League route across the next four days could seem him fall victim to the “fickleness” that frames modern football.
The 59-year-old may only be nine months into his second spell in charge of the national team but he is under mountainous pressure to deliver the results that will allow Scotland to finish top of their group. The Nations League C Group 1 campaign was considered to offer Scotland the best possible chance of ending a 20-year exile from major finals in placing only teams of similar or lower standing in their path.
Yet, the inaugural competition has felt bedevilled since McLeish’s men turned in an abject display to lose 2-1 away to Israel last month.
The extensive casualty list will, in part, force McLeish to rejig his backline for this evening’s encounter in the Loro Borici Stadium. David Bates seems set to be handed a debut in the central defence, with Callum Paterson expected to be moved to right-back as McLeish’s preferred back five system gives way to a flat back four.
The patchwork nature of Scotland tonight reflects the state of flux that appears to have dogged McLeish. His record of two wins from eight games – five of these friendly defeats – has been used as a stick with which to beat him.
Recent predecessors were all given two qualifying campaigns to attempt to take Scotland to a major tournament for the first time since 1998 but McLeish acknowledges judgments on his prospects might be arrived at far more hastily if events do not go his way in Skhoder and Glasgow in the coming days.
A narrow defeat against Albania and a narrow win over Israel would be enough to claim Scotland top spot in their section – the second game of the double header is a must win to ensure Scotland have a superior head-to-head record against an Israel side currently three points ahead of them.
Asked if he felt he “deserved” the standard Euro 2020 qualifying campaign that will be contested next year, McLeish said: “I can understand the fickleness of football these days. It isn’t easy for coaches and managers to accept it the way it is. If I put it into perspective, it will have been four competition games that I would have played. That’s it.
“Every other one was a friendly and four or five of the teams were a wee bit out of our league. I look at it in that perspective. And I have to because if I look at it in a frenetic way then I’m not going to be able to do my job right. I just go forward with resilience, I use that word quite a lot. That is what I plan to do. I believe and trust in this squad. Despite the call-offs, there is terrific camaraderie among the guys who have come to play for Scotland.”
Scotland’s inability to make it to major finals has covered seven managerial tenures. The instinct to twist again, and twist McLeish out of a job if the Nations League doesn’t open up a possible backdoor to Euro 2020, is one the 77-capped former international may have to shoulder.
“That is the instinct everywhere when there are four or five bad results,” he said. “A couple of wins and there is a blue sky all of a sudden. Listen, we all know that after a couple of games you can be getting pelters. But I have to use my experience. Listen, I took a hit [after the Israel defeat]. It wasn’t as if I bounced up the next morning and said ‘oh, I feel terrific’. I am looking to see how I can fix that, how I can make it better. I am not interested in previous campaigns. The only one I am interested in is the current one. We must get results.
“We are still aspiring. I have tried a lot of players. We have chopped and changed a little bit. In the last game in Israel we showed faith from the Albania one [where we won 2-0] and there were contrasting performances. Getting consistency is the thing and consistency of selection is very important.
“[But two games from the play-offs] is how you can narrow it down and from that point of view it’s do-able. I’m sure we can do it. It’s two games and as we keep saying nothing else matters. The logo at the training ground is ‘nothing matters more’ and we’ll go with that. Nothing else matters but these two games.”