The inclusion of Liam Cooper in Gordon Strachan’s squad for Tuesday’s friendly with Denmark marks the first time Leeds United, that once-great source of Scotland players, has provided a centre-back since Gordon McQueen almost 40 years ago.
If of a mind, you could surely see a nod to a tradition of old as a positive development in a real problem position for Strachan. McQueen, pictured, is not of that mind.
“It is an indictment of Scottish football and Leeds,” the 63-year-old ventured of Cooper’s call and the backdrop to it.
“It feels as if anybody can get a try-out with the national side in certain areas. Let’s be honest about this, Scotland and Leeds are not in good shape.”
It is fair to say that McQueen, a title winner with the great Leeds side of the 1970s before becoming a “Judas” to the fans when moving for a British record transfer fee of £495,000 to Manchester United in 1978, has his doubts about Cooper. Equally, it is fair to say these doubts would be shared by many among the Leeds support.
The 24-year-old, who has previously featured in the under-17s and under-19s for Scotland, has had good spells for his club this season. His backline partnership with former Hibernian defender Sol Bamba has not entirely convinced though, as another season has slipped past without Leeds ever threatening to end a decade-plus-long exile from the English top flight. Job security-bereft manager Steve Evans has performed creditably in the difficult circumstances created by working for an impulsive – and the Leeds fans would say – asset-stripping owner in Massimo Cellino.
“If any player shows any promise, Leeds sell him right away,” says McQueen, with the current Scottish internationalist Ross McCormack, flogged to Fulham 18 months ago, a prime example. “They don’t have any assets on or off the field in not owning their stadium, their training ground, or even their car park.”
Cellino’s stewardship, now the subject of “give us our club back” style protests by the Leeds faithful, may be a factor in the ambivalence towards Cooper from the stands. The Hull City youth product, who featured for that club as a teenager in the Premier League, is said to have been “signed on a whim” by the controversial Italian owner.
After drifting out of contention at Hull, a number of loan moves had led Cooper to sign on with League Two side Chesterfield in late 2012. The following season he helped them earn promotion to the English third tier as champions and that summer Chesterfield played Leeds in a friendly. Watched by Cellino, a fine performance by Cooper led the Leeds owner to march down to his team’s dressing room and tell short-lived manager Dave Hockaday that he had to sign the defender.
A fee in the region of £600,000 followed and Cooper has justified the move. He earned lavish praise from Evans around the turn of the year as the Yorkshire club put together an eight-game unbeaten run in bouncing around mid-table of the Championship. Until picking up a hamstring injury at the start of this month, team captain Cooper had been a stick-on for Evans, but club form is not what the somewhat cynical McQueen attributes to his Scotland selection.
“When two squads were picked for these two friendlies, that meant resources were spread pretty thinly,” he said. “I don’t think we produce players for many positions any more, but I know the situation is really desperate at centre-back. When I was coming through they used to say that if you passed a tree a centre-back would fall out, now you look around and ask yourself: where are they?”
Bluntly, McQueen considers that you could rate the recent records of Scotland and Leeds as “absolutely hopeless” in the fact that 20 years will pass without the national team featuring in a major finals, while one of England’s great institution clubs could easy find itself second-tier also-rans for two decades. Don’t get too hung up about how it was all so different in the olden, golden days as far as the Leeds conveyor belt of Scottish talent was concerned seems also to be McQueen’s message.
It is incredible to think that in the 1960s and early 1970s Billy Bremner, Eddie and Frank Gray, Joe Jordan, Peter Lorimer, David Harvey and McQueen amassed countless caps as Elland Road employees.
“Yeah, well the manager Don Revie’s wife was Scottish and he loved Scottish players as a result,” said McQueen, while not quibbling with the array of talent the club, and therefore country, could command courtesy of this quirk. “And anyway, that was 40 years ago. Apart from Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister there has been practically nothing since.” David Hopkin, Dominic Matteo, Robert Snodgrass and McCormack might feel a little aggrieved at that assessment, but the basic thrust of McQueen’s contention is sound.
Cooper, and Liam Bridcutt – in the squad for the Denmark game and on loan at Leeds from Sunderland – might reactivate some sort of Scotland-Leeds link at Hampden on Tuesday, but the former is not perceived as any long-term solution to a centre-back problem for Strachan. A difficulty that, when you consider the goals conceded in the often-encouraging Euro 2016 qualifying campaign probably cost the country a place in the forthcoming French finals.
“I think that Grant Hanley has something to offer; he’s not the worst, put it that way,” McQueen said of the hulking 24-year-old Blackburn Rovers stopper. He has rewarded Scotland after Craig Levein essentially took a Cooper-style punt on him, and Strachan stuck with him through some decidedly raw displays. “Hanley is a steady player with some of the attributes you need. Gordon Greer is serviceable too, but he’s 35 and I don’t see much else.”
McQueen feels for former Manchester United and Scotland team-mate Strachan, and feels he is doing his best in trying circumstances. He was heartened by the 1-0 win over the Czech Republic on Thursday and the fierce patriot applauds Strachan for his ability to end the “call-off culture”.
“Wee Gordon has restored a pride to playing for Scotland,” McQueen said. “Players want to play for the country, and play for him. There seemed a time when friendlies seemed to be looked on as nuisance midweek games to be given a miss by some. You get the sense these are seen as occasions to represent your nation.”
Except that McQueen doesn’t believe that is true of some players. Poor old Cooper being a case in point. The defender qualifies through his grandfather on his father’s side, whom he said recently “is no longer with us, which makes my call-up a massive thing for me and my family”. McQueen can’t take the fact that second-generation lineage can be a qualifying criteria for pulling on the dark blue.
“You are either Scottish or you aren’t. That is my take on it and no-one will convince me otherwise,” he said. “When it comes to my opinion on this hunting around for a distant bloodline I’m accused of having my head stuck in the sand but I’m too long in the tooth to change.”
Yet, despite all his apparent doom-mongering about Scotland’s place in football’s world order, McQueen considers you can never lose all faith in what the future might just bring. He need only look across these isles to find cues for optimism.
“There is a cyclical element to football, and you’ll find any number of examples of that,” he said. “And you only need look back ten years to know that it could be so for Scotland. Back then no-one would have given an earthly for Wales and Northern Ireland ever again appearing in major finals. Now look at them, preparing for Euro 2016. You always have to have some hope.”
And place that hope in the right players.