Stephen Halliday: Absentees point to worrying lack of commitment to the Scotland cause

Matt Ritchie has asked not to be called up by Scotland for the foreseeable future.
Matt Ritchie has asked not to be called up by Scotland for the foreseeable future.
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Not for the first time, a gloomy shadow was cast over a Scotland squad announcement by some of the names not on the list unveiled by Alex McLeish.

For a variety of circumstances, few of them satisfactory from the viewpoint of anyone who believes playing for your country should be the ultimate honour in football, a handful of high-profile English Premier League players will be posted missing when Scotland try to successfully conclude their Uefa Nations League campaign this month.

The absence of James McArthur was already known, the 31-year-old midfielder announcing his retirement from international football last week in order to ‘manage a number of physical issues,’ which have not prevented him being a stand-out ever-present in the English top-flight for Crystal Palace this season.

Scotland manager McLeish, pictured, who tried and failed to talk McArthur out of that decision, is also without experienced duo Matt Ritchie and Robert Snodgrass for the games against Albania in Shkoder on 17 November and Israel at Hampden three days later.

Both attacking midfielders have been regular starters in recent weeks for Newcastle United and West Ham United respectively. But Ritchie, who has not played for Scotland since March, has asked McLeish not to be considered ‘for the foreseeable future,’ while Snodgrass has cited an ongoing ankle problem as the reason for his omission.

Fulham captain Tom Cairney, who has yet to make a competitive appearance for Scotland and has been linked with a switch to England, is another apparently reluctant conscript. The 27-year-old has played the full 90 minutes of Fulham’s last two games, following a month-long injury absence, 
but remains another notable absentee from McLeish’s 23-man 
squad.

It would be easy to interpret the situation surrounding Ritchie, Snodgrass and Cairney as indicative of a wider and worrying lack of commitment to the Scotland cause. But McLeish remains hopeful of their involvement in the future and insists he has to take account of individual circumstances.

“You don’t know everyone’s private life, so you have to respect that,” he said. “I think if you spoke to the players concerned, you would be accommodating with them as well.

“Matt wanted to be left out for the foreseeable future. That was a couple of months ago he told me that. Why? It’s private. It’s not something for me to discuss. But he has had injury issues as well and, again, there is management of his injuries.

“I wanted Matt to come in to the squad but he has asked to be left out at the moment. He has not retired or anything.

“Robert is managing a kind of ankle knock that is ongoing. It made him miss our last games, too, when, as you know, he had to leave the squad. So, again, it’s something that is out of our control.

“Tom has only recently come back into the Fulham side after injury. He hasn’t been in the rhythm and we feel there will be another time for Tom to come back into the squad. There hasn’t been any chat on [the England link].

“With James McArthur, he has made his decision and, again, you can’t control it. You can’t worry about it or curse your luck. He’s a great player, he’s been a great servant and he clearly wants to make sure his professional career is fulfilled in terms of his club. At the end of the day, it’s not the first time it’s happened.

“People say it’s a modern thing, but, in my day, players stopped playing for the international team as well, because it was too much for them with the amount of games they had for their clubs.

“I tried to talk James out of it. In fact, in the summer he was very keen about Scotland when I spoke to him. I explained I’d left him out of the summer tour to help his recovery and that I saw him as a key figure for the Euro 2020 qualification campaign.

“He said he was up for it but then has obviously taken stock. It’s a short career and a big shock when you stop playing. International
football is more intense now, with the amount of games, so I guess there’s that factor as well.”

In addition to the return of striker Steven Fletcher to the squad, there are recalls 
for Cardiff City’s in-form 
utility man 
Callum Paterson and West Bromwich Albion winger Matt Phillips.

Uncapped Aberdeen defender Michael Devlin, team-mate Gary Mackay-Steven and Celtic attacking midfielder Ryan Christie are all included after being handed late call-ups for the friendly against Portugal last month.

Blackburn Rovers captain Charlie Mulgrew, pictured below, is named in the squad, despite currently being sidelined by a rib injury which will be assessed later this week.

In the event of Mulgrew’s 
withdrawal, Hamburg defender David Bates could be considered as a replacement.

McLeish is confident the players at his disposal can bounce back from the dismal 2-1 defeat in Israel and secure the results needed to win their Nations League group and snare a guaranteed play-off place for Euro 2020.

“Israel was rotten,” admitted McLeish. “But I look forward to these two games and I have trust in the guys. Winning the group is very achievable and we know what we want to do.

“Nothing else matters apart from these two games. We have to get into their minds and tell them how big an achievement this could be.”