If not quite the forgotten men, they are a band of brothers of whom much is expected but from whom little of late has been heard.
This could be set to change this season, as Lewis Macleod, Ryan Fraser and Ryan Gauld all seek to emerge from the shadows after trying spells. These three Scottish prospects will reunite at Tynecastle next Friday, providing Scotland Under 21 manager Ricky Sbragia selects them in his side to face FYR Macedonia in a European Championship qualifier.
Each player is able to relate their own tale of frustration. Undoubtedly it is Macleod, the 22-year-old former Rangers midfielder, who has suffered most. He has made only four appearances since moving in 2014 from Ibrox to Brentford, enticed by then manager Mark Warburton – now of course at Rangers himself.
Happily, three of these four appearances have come this season, which is evidence that Macleod is on the way back.
His situation was supplied with some bleak humour when it emerged one cause of 18 months of injury hell was falling over a twig lying on the ground during a training session. It’s hard to credit, but he also suffered a setback after tripping in a rabbit hole while out running with the club physio.
“I’ve been keeping in touch with him once a month and he’s had low times,” said Sbragia yesterday. “There were times when I spoke to him and he was training well and there were then times when I spoke to him and he’s just had a little injury – that happened at the end of last year,” he continued.
“But sometimes that makes you really strong mentally. He’s bubbly, enthusiastic and he’s playing football. I think that is really important for Lewis. He’s also playing at first-team level. He’s done extremely well to come through some harsh times.”
Then, perhaps in reference to the mishaps that seem to afflict Macleod, he added: “I just hope he comes through this weekend.” Brentford play Sheffield Wednesday at Griffin Park on Saturday. Anxiously waiting to hear whether Macleod and other squad members have emerged from their club outings unscathed is one of the occupational hazards of Sbragia’s job.
But the manager did not give up on Macleod when he was sidelined. “The problem for him has been trying to keep him involved, even at club level,” said Sbragia. “As a manager, sometimes when you see injured players, your thoughts aren’t with him – your thoughts are only with the fit players because you have a game coming up. But with Lewis I have kept in contact with him.”
As for Fraser, a season-long loan at Ipswich Town was disrupted by two hamstring tears. But the 22-year-old still managed to make an impression in his 21 appearances there during the campaign. His performances helped convince Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe he was ready to make a first Premier League start last weekend, against West Ham.
Few who saw him perform in front of nearly 60,000 fans at West Ham’s new London stadium could argue the winger got it wrong when deciding to move to Bournemouth from Aberdeen three seasons ago. The transfer was originally met with disbelief by those who struggled to see how Bournemouth could compare with Aberdeen, the historically bigger club.
But Fraser was perhaps wiser than anyone; Bournemouth has proved his pathway to the riches of the Premier League.
“I think he can go all the way,” said Sbragia. “He’s playing at first-team level and it’s important we have players who are playing in the English Premier League too. Ryan had a spell at Ipswich and done well. He got a knock but hopefully all his injuries are over now. I think he can have a really good season this year.
“Ryan made the decision to leave Aberdeen a few years ago for whatever reason and he’s done well. Although I don’t think he knew how far Bournemouth was – I think he thought it was around London or something! I kept in touch with Mick McCarthy at Ipswich and he spoke highly of him. But credit to him for coming back from injury and to see him play on Sunday against West Ham was very encouraging.”
Gauld, 20, is also hoping to secure some game-time in the top flight – in Portugal in his case – having recently moved from Sporting Lisbon to Vitoria de Setubal on loan.
“We speak to him, not as much,” said Sbragia. “A lot of them don’t actually know how to use a phone. They are always on social media but they don’t want to actually phone you back when you leave a voice message!
“But I had a good talk with him after the Northern Ireland game [in March] and he felt it was the time to go on loan. And I think he was right. It is a great move for him. Sometimes it is just a different person talking to him. But he is really enjoying it, he loves Portugal and he is playing at a high standard of football. It is a good chance for him.
“I think with Ryan he will eventually start. I don’t think you would take a player on loan otherwise. You’d maybe introduce him a bit more slowly to the style of football, because it might be a bit different to what Sporting play. But I think with Ryan it is a just a matter of time and getting him playing football. Give him football, that’s important.”