In Robert Snodgrass, Scotland boss Gordon Strachan sees what he hopes is a metaphor for the national team going forward.
A guy who has had to work hard for everything he has earned, had to overcome adversity and still has the character and belief needed to operate amongst the game’s elite.
Involved in his second full qualifying campaign since becoming Scotland manager in 2013, the Scotland boss is trying to guide the country to a major finals for the first time since 1998. To do that he knows he will have to rely heavily on guys like Hull City midfielder Snodgrass, his tenacity and his temperament.
“He didn’t have an easy start in life and that’s character building. He didn’t come through easily, with everyone taking his hand and telling him he is great and wonderful, driving about by car here and there, mum and dad in their four-wheel taking him everywhere. It was real. His life and where he has got to has been a real experience.”
That character helped when he dislocated a kneecap at the start of the 2014-15 campaign, forcing him to sit out more than a season.
The injury came just weeks after he had moved from Norwich City to Hull City but having fought through an operation and rehab, he did force his way back into the first team, returning to the fold in December 2015.
“And now the knee injury has added to that character,” said Strachan as he discussed his latest squad for the Group F World Cup qualifiers, against Lithuania at Hampden on Saturday, and then away to Slovakia three days later. “He has come back and is playing the way he does. Not just for us but for Hull.“
A big personality, he is also a walking, talking, playing example to all the younger players who have been forcing their way into the squad in recent times and learning what it takes to make the jump from Scottish domestic football to the full international scene.
Having come through the ranks, as a member of the squad that reached the final of the 2006 UEFA Under-19 Championships in Poland and then impressed in the Under-20 World Cup in Canada the following summer, he is a key player in Strachan’s push to make it through the tough World Cup qualifiers and book a place at Russia 2018.
With a gallus streak and an in-built sense of determination, Snodgrass was happy to put himself forward for the captaincy of the national team when former leader Scott Brown quit international football. He did not get the nod ahead of Darren Fletcher but it showed a self-belief and a willingness to lead and assume responsibility, which Strachan claims is in keeping with his character.
“Listen, I think we all know that he is tongue in cheek with a lot of things he does as well. But, yeah, he is doing well but so are others. There are a few players doing well at the moment but he is a big character and just as importantly he is a right good footballer who can play in different positions.
“We like having him about the place as well. I think it was my first [competitive] international here that he was sent off when we were 1-0 up and we got beat 2-1 [by Wales, in March 2013] and that shows you how important he is.
“He also scored in the Croatia game when we won over there [as part of the same World Cup qualifying campaign] so he has been a big part of the squad.”
In a tough group featuring England, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta, the fact is Scotland will have to show plenty of the quality and self-belief that took Snodgrass from the youth ranks at Livingston to the English Premier League. If little in life has been handed to Snodgrass, according to his national boss, the same can be said of Scotland on the world stage in recent decades. Hard luck stories, tough group draws and others rising to the occasion while Scotland suffered some suicidal results against teams they needed to beat. Long-term illness and injuries to pivotal players has also been a factor.
Even when injured, though, the Hull City midfielder remained a buoyant figure in camp, visiting and supporting the team throughout his enforced on-field absence.
“Yeah, we saw him a lot,” said Strachan. “He was always at the games. We liked that. There are small things a manager keeps in his mind, small things that can make a difference when I am picking a squad actually.”
But now that both Darren Fletcher and Snodgrass have returned to the fold fully fit and just as hungry as the youngsters who have added some fresh legs to the line-up in recent matches, the man charged with guiding Scotland past the pitfalls and back on to the biggest stage, hopes there is a winning formula.
Against Lithuania, a side he claims is strong due to a consistency of selection and subsequent club side mentality, he is confident that goal chances will materialise and happy he has the players at his disposal to convert them, but he is also apprised of the threat their opponents can pose going forward, saying their 2-2 draw with Slovenia hinted at the way they will approach their Hampden outing.
“It was a cracking game of football with chances everywhere for both sides. It was end-to-end with good players on the ball. So Lithuania have the capacity to go and attack but they also gave up chances to Slovenia so there should be chances for us as well.”
Just as he did ahead of the group opener with Malta, he has insisted the next match is not a must-win fixture but slip-ups against the smaller nations have proved the country’s undoing in the past.
“Of course, the fans will expect to beat Lithuania at Hampden. I understand that. But I think there’s an understanding from them now – because of YouTube and what they pick up in the media – of what’s actually happening. If you actually do your homework, you’ll appreciate that teams like Lithuania are actually not bad.
“I saw Lithuania against Poland as well. It wasn’t as you’d expect with teams of that stature, who used to come here ten years ago and sit in. No, they’re out and they’re after you. They get at you. They went after Poland and had a real good chance after just 15 seconds.
“So football’s changing a wee bit. The two games [against Lithuania and Slovakia] will be different in terms of the opposition’s mentality because one is away from home and other is at home. But Lithuania will come for us here if they spot a weakness. So we have to be wary of that.”