Sat in front of the press, the Scottish FA didn’t exactly present the image of…
On this week’s podcast we mulled over the news of Alex McLeish taking up the role of Scotland national team coach. Like most football fans in our noisy, little country, we debated the pros and cons of the former Hibernian and Rangers manager returning to Hampden, before the inevitable question came up: What next?
Indeed, it’s impossible to discuss the Scotland national team without quickly turning to the topic of how McLeish and the Scottish FA as a whole will handle the inevitable transfer of power from the current generation to the next.
This was an obvious point of contention under Gordon Strachan. Although the former Scotland manager often hoped to get by on his prickly and quixotic approach to answering questions and being held to account, he was ultimately undone by his rather dismissive regard for the Scottish Premiership and the growing amount of young players bubbling to the surface of it that he seemingly had little interest in using.
The former Celtic manager did a decent enough job of trying to qualify for this summer’s World Cup, but he never once gave any suggestion that he knew, or even cared, about what Scotland’s national team will look like in two or five years time. That’s something McLeish will have to deal with almost immediately.
To have a Scotland manager that doesn’t rate Scotland’s top division always seemed like a doomed venture. And to those that may agree with Strachan’s blunt assessment of the Premiership I suggest a quick peruse of some of this summer’s World Cup contestants.
Although Sweden rely heavily on players that play across the length and breadth of European football, their recent friendlies with Estonia and Denmark in January featured a squad that had 83% of its players come from Swedish clubs.
Similarly, Poland took the opportunity to call up seven players from the Polish Ekstraklasa for their friendlies against Uruguay and Mexico, while even World champions Germany took their opportunity to blood untested Bundesliga talents like RB Leipzig’s Marcel Halstenberg and Hertha Berlin’s Marvin Plattenhardt in recent tests against England and France.
Although the United States aren’t the first nation that come to mind when considering exemplary international sides, they have recently turned to MLS-only squads for friendlies. And they did qualify for the seven World Cups prior to this year’s tournament in Russia.
Even Egypt, who look like one of the intriguing dark horses of this summer’s competition, have relied on no less than 15 players from their own domestic league to qualify for the World Cup. If these more successful countries with comparable leagues (excluding Germany of course) are more than happy to dip in to their domestic pool of players why can’t Scotland?
Due to Scotland being drawn in a three-team group for the Nations Cup, it means McLeish will have five friendlies before the first competitive match against Albania on September 10. With a sixth directly after the second Nations Cup matchday against Israel.
That means the incoming manager has five games to test out young, untested players. So why doesn’t he take that rare opportunity to not only try new formations and systems out, but fundamentally open the doors of Hampden to any potential talent that can play in the famous dark blue jersey. In other words, why doesn’t he call up an all-Premiership squad for at least the first three games?
The case for a greater inclusion of Premiership players isn’t just a theoretic one – it’s based on the fact that a number of players lighting up the division could very quickly fill holes in McLeish’s team.
Perhaps the most striking issue with Scotland at the moment is the back line. Fans would undoubtedly be loathed to undergo another campaign with Mulgrew or Grant Hanley, yet at Hearts McLeish may find a ready-made solution in the partnership Christophe Berra and John Souttar have not only struck up relatively quickly but allowed the Edinburgh side to build on and use to turn their season around.
Similarly, if McLeish is unsure of Callum Patterson at right back he could turn to the likes of Jason Naismith, Stephen O’Donnell or Chris Cadden. And if he’s looking to expand the defense to a five-man line then James Forrest has shown his aptitude at wing-back, while James Tierney could make for an outstanding central defender.
Another area that undoubtedly needs explored is the dynamic and somewhat all-conquering midfield that Neil Lennon has fostered and undoubtedly improved at Hibs this season. John McGinn’s inclusion in any future squad seems like a no-brainer to most, yet the performances of Martin Boyle, Dylan McGeouch and Scott Allan (mostly at Dundee) will surely deserve consideration if they continue pushing for a second-place finish.
If not Hibs, then it’s impossible to look beyond the turnaround at Rangers under Graeme Murty and the manner in which notable Scots have fuelled the Ibrox’s sides charge up the table. Ross McCrorie is perhaps the most obvious shout, yet the young David Bates has often proved just as reliable, while in midfield Jason Holt, Ryan Jack and Greg Docherty would all make demands for inclusion in a Premiership Scotland squad. Not to mention the resurgent form of Jamie Murphy and Jason Cummings.
There are of course other examples across the division that deserve merit. Callum McGregor continues to not only prove he’s ready for a call up but at this stage is already suggesting a starring role in the starting XI for the Nations Cup wouldn’t be unjustified. While the Aberdeen-based trio of Scott McKenna, Graeme Shinnie and Ryan Christie would all argue that they should be front and centre of any available spots in McLeish’s squads going forward.
Although English-based talents such as Andy Robertson, Matt Ritchie, Tom Cairney and Ryan Fraser will always be obvious inclusions in McLeish’s squads to come, each of the aforementioned Premiership stars deserve a chance of proving that they can add something to the national team. At least in the coming friendlies.
And through that McLeish would not only prove that he’s a far more pragmatic and open-minded coach than his predecessor but may actually be able to transform this squad and take Scotland to new heights in the modern game.