For all the lather over Celtic midfielder Callum McGregor’s omission from the latest Scotland squad, Gordon Strachan could hardly be accused of failing to appreciate the value of players from his old club. In the case of Kieran Tierney, indeed, the value comes in triplicate.
The 20-year-old is likely to be one of six Celtic players in the starting line-up for Friday’s assignment in Lithuania that represents the first of four absolutely-must-win World Cup qualifiers. That statistic highlights the evolution of the team inside a year. With Scott Brown then briefly retired, the first XI that scraped a 1-1 draw with the Lithuanians at Hampden last September did not feature any Celtic players.
Tierney was on the bench that evening but now having only one of him appears to be not enough. For if Strachan had a cloning device you get the impression he would happily field three of him in a nine-strong Celtic selection. The most lauded Scottish player of his generation this week claimed as potentially a £40 million target for English clubs by John Hartson, it is incredible to think that Tierney has played in three different positions across his mere four caps.
His deployment in a back three for the June draw with England followed his role as a right-back to allow Andrew Robertson to be accommodated in Tierney’s standard left-back berth.
Recently given the captaincy and centre-half duties for a Betfred Cup win over Kilmarnock wherein he cracked in a 35-yarder just for good measure, all things defensively seem possible for the youngster at club and country. With Robertson now pushing for a place at Liverpool following a superb debut for the Anfield side last week, the Scotland manager has full-backs he can trust.
Strachan has often left himself open to accusations of being over-cautious and cussed in how he handles personnel decisions but his management of Tierney has shown that he can be inventive. Yet, he doesn’t look for a pat in the back for pitching Tierney into a right-back position he had never played in senior football, which came when Slovenia had to be beaten at Hampden in March. It was simply a case of needs must with Robertson available for the role.
“It’s no fun when you look at your bench and your third-best player is sitting beside you,” the Scotland manager said. “You have to get a system for your best players. To be fair, Danny McGrain and Sandy Jardine played opposite sides. They were world class. But it’s similar here – we have two top, top players.
“And sure, there’s youth about Tierney, but if you watch him, his decision-making is great. There’s never youthful stupidity in anything he does. He never slashes a ball away, never panics, never dives into a daft tackle, hits a ball he only hopes is going to get there. Everything points towards him having an older head.
“I just think he [Tierney] is a player. By that I mean while some players are footballers that can only play football games he can play anything – anywhere, any time, any position, any condition.
“Some people you move to other positions and they just crumble. I know that for a fact. But not him, he takes it on. Because I knew him, I always thought ‘he’ll be fine.’ When you asked him to do something, he was just ‘aw aye, not a problem’. He might privately have been thinking ‘oh, Jesus…’.
“But we knew, especially playing him at centre back, we had to find someone who was willing to go and find people, get up against them, and back themselves one for one – he has all of that. And he learned the role. He’s doing us a favour, doing the team a favour, but you’re gauged on your performance and he’s not scared of that. He’ll back himself everywhere against anyone , which is fantastic. He’s a special player.”
Tierney’s controlled aggression allows him to be adept both in driving forward to provide ammunition for forwards or pacing back to shadow opponents or snap into tackles. There is a complete package that Strachan has tapped into effectively on the most demanding stage.
“And that’s why he can play centre half as well. You talk about the left back who bombs on, a bombing on left back couldn’t do what Tierney did against England.
“He backs himself. He’s one of the few defenders who looks at a one on one situation and thinks ‘I’m not really needing any help here, I’ll look after him…’ He’s one of those players wide men in particular look at and probably think ‘Ach, I’d rather be somewhere else….’ He likes a tackle. We should be proud of him.”