Gordon Strachan has no fears about turning to Darren Fletcher again as Scotland look for inspiration and leadership in the absence of Scott Brown.
The manager’s preparations have been rocked by three injury withdrawals in the shape of Brown, Stuart Armstrong and Matt Ritchie as Scotland seek to secure six points from their last two group matches against Slovakia and Slovenia.
Brown’s absence has the potential to impact most significantly on Strachan’s plans. The improvement in Scotland’s World Cup qualifying fortunes has coincided with the midfielder’s return from a brief international retirement.
The fear is he might now have kicked his last ball for Scotland. But it would be poetic if Fletcher, that other great servant to the international side in the last two mostly-bleak decades, should lead Scotland to a play-off place.
Fletcher is the perhaps obvious choice to replace Brown as both midfield anchor and skipper.
While Strachan is big on loyalty this won’t necessarily mean he will hand Craig Gordon, pictured below, the armband on the occasion of the goalkeeper’s 50 th cap against Slovakia on Thursday.
“That is taking loyalty too far,” he said. Sentiment must give way to expedience on this occasion. Strachan will need someone to drive the team from a midfield berth, rather like Brown has been doing of late and in the manner Fletcher once did on a regular basis.
The latter’s appearances have been sporadic of late. Fletcher’s last competitive international was the 3-0 loss to England in November. But if he features in the next two games he will earn his 80th cap against Slovenia on Sunday night.
Asked if he was confident about transferring the twin responsibility of skipper and holding midfielder duties back to Fletcher, Strachan replied “absolutely”. Fletcher has been an ever-present in the Stoke City side this season since joining from West Bromwich Albion. While he endured a difficult afternoon in the 4-0 home loss against Chelsea two weeks ago, he played all 90 minutes of Saturday’s 2-1 win over Southampton. “I saw him last week against Chelsea,” said Strachan. “People say he made a mistake for the goal – yes it has come off his chest but the guy has belted it in from 22 yards, a wonder goal. I think people round about could have helped a wee bit more to be honest with you.”
It’s not from a sense of obligation that Strachan might pick Fletcher. However, the manager did note the midfielder’s devotion to the cause. Fletcher, 33, dropped out of the last double-header on the morning the squad left for Lithuania due to a knock but otherwise has proved willing to take his place among the substitutes. “It is easy for him at his age – and he is not old – to say, right, I didn’t get a game the last couple, I’ve got this, I’ve got that,” mused Strachan. “He turns up again and again. But there are loads of guys who could do that. Barry Bannan could do that sometimes. He turns up all the time. He has not played regularly, but he is always there. We appreciate that. That’s always rewarded – that kind of loyalty.”
Although he seemed to rule out Gordon being named captain in Brown’s absence, Strachan did not confirm who would lead the team out at Hampden on Thursday.
“It will be Darren around the place,” he said. “But I don’t really go in for that – ‘he has to be captain and talk to everybody’. There are usually about three or four guys who I go to and say: ‘look I’m thinking about chucking that in today, or trying that, or do you think they should have a day off today, Tuesday or Wednesday…’”
The injury woe of absent colleagues hasn’t served to dampen enthusiasm within the camp but Strachan is being careful with players who are experiencing tough times with their club.
James McArthur, another contender for the midfield anchor role, is probably happy to be escaping an environment where he’s part of a Crystal Palace team that’s failed to score a goal in their opening seven Premier League games.
“I’ve been told we have momentum with us because of the last games,” warned Strachan. “Well, OK, but these guys have played a lot of games [for their clubs] since then. So the momentum doesn’t come from our last games as an international side. It does for the coaching staff. We come along and think: ‘Right, we’ve won a couple of games, it’s great to be back in’.
But the momentum for a player can change quickly.
“Momentum? [John] McGinn has it. He’s flying. [Callum] McGregor. Flying. Barry Bannan. Flying. Maybe it’s not the same with James McArthur, pictured right, because his club isn’t exactly flying at the moment.”
But as this list of names illustrated, even without Brown, Armstrong and Ritchie and together with McArthur’s woes, if there’s an area where Scotland have sufficient depth, it’s midfield.