Scotland assistant manager Mark McGhee has described Tony Watt as a player he would “love to really smack around” but nonetheless insists the striker deserves his surprise recall to the international squad.
Watt’s inclusion has been the biggest talking point among Gordon Strachan’s selections for Thursday’s challenge match against Czech Republic in Prague. The 22-year-old former Celtic player’s attitude and commitment has been called into question by a number of his former managers and coaches, including Neil Lennon at Parkhead, Billy Stark with Scotland under-21s and Stanley Menzo at Belgian club Lierse.
Watt, currently on loan at Blackburn Rovers from Charlton, was picked by Scotland manager Strachan ahead of the more prolific English Championship duo of Jordan Rhodes and Ross McCormack.
Fulham forward McCormack was drafted in yesterday when Norwich striker Steven Naismith withdrew with a hamstring injury, but Middlesbrough front man Rhodes remains out of the picture.
McGhee is adamant Strachan has not closed the door on Rhodes ahead of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign which begins in September.
But although expressing the startling view that Watt might even have benefited from being sent to a boot camp to improve his fitness, McGhee believes he can still emerge as the best alternative to Steven Fletcher as Scotland’s first-choice striker.
“I remember saying to Tony when he was with us in a squad early in our tenure that I would love to work with him every day,” said McGhee.
“He is the sort of player I would love to get a hold of and really smack around. He has got tremendous ability and I hope that we can throw down gauntlets to him, challenges and incentives to him for coming back again and being part of the World Cup campaign.
“Tony has been his own worst enemy in many ways but the word on the street is that he is starting to get the message, therefore Gordon has trusted that he could bring him here.
“We’ve spoken to people who know him well and have been around him and they talk about his improved mentality and sense of responsibility. But he’s also one of these boys who is not fit enough. He doesn’t train hard enough.
“I know that if you could get him to work hard in training, he would be a better player in the games. He relies so much on his natural ability that he lets himself down because he can’t go the distance.
“I remember speaking to Neil Lennon about him when he was at Celtic. There was a point where I thought ‘don’t let him near a football’. Set him certain targets and standards before he gets another kick of the ball. Send him to one of these places in America that get you fit. A boot camp. If he can improve his fitness by factor ‘X’, he’s going to be a better player.
“Hopefully he is now at a club in Blackburn, working under Paul Lambert, where that will be happen. Paul will not tolerate Tony being the way he’s been. He’ll be on his case. He could be the one to really make a player of him.
“We suspect that might be the case. At some point, the penny will drop and he’ll realise he’s a really good player. We can help him with that here, Gordon can help him. Listen, there are no decisions made, we are just exploring things, but Tony has a different type of ability from all the other strikers mentioned.
“Let’s say Steven Fletcher takes a knock – to maintain the performance and the way we play, we need someone else to go up there and do that same job. Tony is definitely that type, so we have to establish in our minds whether he can realistically trust him.”
McGhee says McCormack, who earned the most recent of his 11 Scotland caps in a friendly against Poland two years ago, had no hesitation in accepting the late call for this week’s squad. “I called him on Sunday night, said he was next on the list and that we needed him because Naisy was injured and he said ‘100 per cent – I’m there’,” said McGhee.
“I know Ross well and I didn’t have any fears he wouldn’t want to be here despite missing out on recent squads. I think he knows he hasn’t done himself full justice when he was in previous squads for one reason or another.
“I’ve told him that every time he gets a call like this, he has to show the manager that he should be in the next one.
“Again, we talk about types of players up front. Gordon feels he has the right balance of types and that means at this point Jordan Rhodes is not required. We know what Jordan can do, we know exactly how he plays. He’s played for us before, remember. We have trained with Jordan, we know him.
“The critical time for players is when Gordon comes to name the squad for the Malta game when the World Cup qualifying campaign starts.
“Then people can start to worry if they’re not in it or ask the question about why somebody’s not in it. At this stage, we’re just trying to gain as much knowledge as we can and at the same time keep a balance of the squad that makes us able to be competitive and do well in the games.”
Uncapped Birmingham City right-back Paul Caddis, who was previously an unused substitute away to Serbia three years ago, was also called into the squad yesterday as a replacement for Norwich City’s Steven Whittaker, whose wife is due to give birth.