Amidst all of the speculation over who might benefit from Gordon Strachan’s two-pronged approach to kicking off his preparations for the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, the name of Tony Watt did not pass many lips.
Of all the surprises the Scotland manager sprung with his announcement of two squads for the challenge matches against Czech Republic and Denmark this month, it’s reasonable to suggest Watt’s inclusion raised most eyebrows.
In the past four years, he has gone from scoring a Champions League winner for Celtic against Barcelona to becoming, in the perception of many, simply a jobbing striker in the second tier of English football.
But, significantly for Watt’s prospects of rekindling the reputation he enjoyed as a teenager, that is not the view Strachan takes. He still sees the 22-year-old, currently on loan at Blackburn Rovers from Charlton, as someone who could provide Scotland with the attacking edge they need to reach a major tournament finals for the first time since 1998.
“He’s different from most strikers,” said Strachan. “He’s powerful. When he gets running, he’s strong. He can score goals on his own and he can make goals.
“If you look at all the top teams in the world, and I’m not saying Tony’s in that bracket, they have players who can make goals on their own.
“Our tactics are to build the play. If you look at most of our goals, there are loads of passes involved in them. There are not many of them where someone gets the ball, beats two men then whacks it in the back of the net – something that comes from nowhere.
“But Tony has got that. I’ve spoken to people recently, players who have played with him and managers and coaches who have worked with him. So we want to say to him ‘Come on, come back in and let’s see what you can do.’
Uncapped at senior level, Watt was previously included in a squad by Strachan three years ago but failed to even make the bench. Since then, following his departure from Celtic to Belgium and then his move to Charlton, he even dropped out of the reckoning for the Scotland under-21s.
Watt’s attitude has often been questioned by those managing him, with both Neil Lennon and Ronny Deila critical of him when he was at Celtic, along with Stanley Menzo at Belgian club Lierse and former Scotland under-21 coach Billy Stark.
It is an issue Strachan does not duck but one he believes Watt still has time to address before he is left with nothing but regrets over the way his career pans out.
“Most of the coaches you speak to about Tony will say he has got this, he has got that, but…
“There is always a ‘but’ there with Tony. Only he can get rid of that ‘but’. We have all spoken to him and tried to show him what a good player he can be. But to be a great player you have to dedicate your whole life to this game.
“It’s up to Tony now. He is getting chances a lot of people don’t get. It’s up to Tony now to take these chances. It doesn’t have to be in just one training session or one game. Sometimes you can change your career or your lifestyle over a longer period of time.
“There are so many players who must be sitting now at home going ‘If only’ when thinking about their career. That’s a horrible feeling. But Tony has got something we don’t really have.”
One player whose attitude has hugely impressed Strachan is Hibs midfielder John McGinn who has been promoted from the under-21 squad and is in line to make his full debut against Denmark at Hampden on 29 March.
McGinn is the beneficiary of Strachan’s decision to spend time working with the under-21s when they faced Ukraine last November.
“Unless something tragic had happened, John was always going to be in the squad from the time I spent with the under-21s,” said Strachan.
“It was not just the game against Ukraine where he played very well along with Andrew Robertson. Just watching players around the squad and in training, you get to know their characters. I got to know John’s character a bit.
“From that week, he was always going to be in one of these squads. His team is playing well and he is playing very well.”
McGinn is the only player from the Scottish Championship called up by Strachan who overlooked the claims of in-form Rangers captain Lee Wallace for a return to the squad, instead preferring to promote Celtic teenager Kieran Tierney from the Scotland under-19s to contend for the left-back position currently held by Andrew Robertson.
“Kieran has kept his place in the Celtic first team in front of a good player [Emilio Izaguirre],” reasoned Strachan.
“It’s not easy playing for a top side but he has made it look easy. We are actually well off for left-sided defenders. With Lee Wallace, he would be getting a game if it wasn’t for Andrew Robertson and Kieran. Lee is a good player but I have to look at these two for the future.
“You have to remember where we are strong and where we are weak. Remember where we need to look. There are loads of people who might think they should be in the squad. But this is the best squad of players, I think, for Scotland.”