“Maybe I won’t go,” the national manager joked of the call-off cluster he has had to deal with. But though he attempted to make light of the the fact his travelling pool is becoming ever more inexperienced and patchwork, McLeish did concede he requires to make it plain to Scotland players that they must show the necessary desire when it comes to representing their country.
The day after rejoining Rangers, Allan McGregor became the latest senior squad member to be excused the trip, during which Scotland will face Peru on 29 May and then Mexico on 3 June. McLeish said there are “personal reasons” he “has to respect” for the keeper dropping out, his place taken by Celtic’s Scott Bain.
McGregor became the fourth player in four days to be disappear from the already under-strength squad originally named last week, which had to be immediately reshaped following the loss of English Premier League performers Barry Douglas, Ryan Fraser and Matt Ritchie. Kilmarnock’s Stephen O’Donnell and Motherwell’s Chris Cadden were the beneficiaries with first call-ups as McLeish sought to bring his numbers back up.
The Scotland manager had already made a number of “concessions”, with Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson – currently preparing for next Saturday’s Champions League final – the Celtic quintet of Kieran Tierney, James Forrest, Craig Gordon, Callum McGregor and Leigh Griffiths, Hearts’ Christophe Berra and James McArthur all in the rested category for a seemingly ill-fated jaunt.
The proximity of the games across the Atlantic to the start of pre-season training for Scottish clubs involved in European qualifiers in only seven weeks offers a legitimate reason for any absentees from within these borders.
However, Newcastle United’s Ritchie, Bournemouth’s Fraser and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Douglas won’t play competitively again until August.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill said this week that he found it “sad” there had been such a negative reaction to what could be an important building block for the Nations League, which starts in September.
He pointed out that such an excursion – when he had buy-in from all his integral performers – proved invaluable. That was not lost on McLeish.
“They went to Uruguay and Chile when he started turning the corner with Northern Ireland,” the Scotland manager said of that post-season tour in 2014. “You have to embrace the trip. That’s my war cry to the boys.
“Obviously if it is a World Cup there is a different mindset and mentality, but we did know that there would be a few who would drop out. I’ve phoned most of them and said to them ‘I want you to be really passionate about playing for Scotland’. They said, ‘gaffer, we really want to play’. It’s just the likes of Matt Ritchie have been struggling in the last few weeks, no training, just playing the games, so I said, ‘well, I’ll not train you either’. If we are going to make any concessions, it’s now and we want to get everybody buzzing for the September fixtures.”
Cadden’s reaction to being called up is that he is buzzing to be part of Scotland now. And McLeish applauds captain Charlie Mulgrew for the fact that, coming off the back of a draining League One promotion-earning campaign, the 32-year-old centre-back has never lost the buzz of representing his country as he has amassed 31 caps.
“You can see what it means,” he said of Motherwell midfielder Cadden’s delight.
“When I got my first cap, Jock Stein told me at an awards night dinner when I’d just lost on a recount for young player of the year to John McDonald. Jock came up to me and said ‘never mind about that – you’re playing for Scotland on Wednesday night’.
“I was stunned, shaking, but the game with Portugal went great. We won 4-1 and I played in midfield with wee Archie Gemmill. He chaperoned me and I’m sure some of the experienced guys we’ve got on this trip can do the same for the younger guys coming in for the first time. [Mulgrew can be in that camp] and what I love about him is he always says he wants to keep playing for Scotland. He wants as many caps as he can get.
“He has an immense pride in playing for this country and it’s his type of character that should rub off on the young guys – it should be infectious.
“Some of the guys who have pulled out, I’ve reminded them that this has given them a platform to be even more recognised, playing for Scotland, and that they should never lose that passion playing for us.”