First Team Football: Is it a Must?

As I made the long trek back to the car after Scotland’s 2-1 victory over Denmark, getting what felt like my umpteenth soaking of the day when in reality it was only the second a wave of slight optimism washed over my body. I say slight for a couple of reasons. Firstly it was a friendly and
Denmark coach Morten Olsen had already said he was looking well past this game to his side’s qualifier against Norway. Secondly optimism by definition in Scotland is paired with cynicism, a sense of oncoming dread and a general feeling it’s not going to last. Therefore I give you: ‘Cautious Optimism’, the watch words for those that live in eternal hope and infinite fear.

The football played was good and every substitution was met with that ‘optimism’ that this player has the ability to contribute, even Craig Mackail-Smith who is still being viewed upon with sceptical eyes looked busy and I believe that he has the ability to become a very useful part of the squad. In fact from the midfield forward I can’t remember a time, since I’ve been following Scotland anyway (born 1985), that Scotland have had such a talented group of players in the final third. The starting midfield last night consisted of new Tartan Army cult hero Charlie Adam, James ‘The Brazilian’ Morrison, Scott Brown, Robert Snodgrass and Steven Naismith with Don Cowie replacing Scott Brown early on. Without thinking too hard the fact you could name another midfield five of a decent quality in Darren Fletcher, Lee McCulloch, Barry Bannan, Craig Conway and Barry Robson shows what kind of strength Scotland have had in that area.

Up front Kenny Miller will be more aware than anyone that any drop in form, effort or another one of his fabled one to one chances going
begging (at half time we came up with four howlers in key games) than he too will find himself under pressure from the likes of Mackail-Smith, David Goodwillie, Chris Maguire and if you are to believe in recent statements a resurgent Kris Boyd.  His position more key as it becomes clear that Levein favours a 4-1-4-1, meaning the position of goal getter in chief falls on the lone front man.

Add to that the X-Factor that is the lesser spotted James McFadden last seen training at Fir Park, a man you hope hasn’t lost his spark, and
then Scotland too has a strength up front they have not experienced for a long time.

That just leaves the defence, admittedly Alan McGregor had a howler last night as that free kick sailed over his head but mistakes happen
and with Craig Gordon competing when fit  Scotland still have two truly top drawer goalkeepers. What is a concern, well until last night was the centre of defence. In the last few games Scotland has looked susceptible at the back to giving away stupid goals, not to blame any one player but how much better and organised did the defence look without Christophe Berra in it.

The partnership of Gary Caldwell and Danny Wilson looked extremely solid, the tippy-tappy nonsense at towards of the game aside.  Gary Caldwell may have won man of the match but the clichéd assessment that Danny Wilson is mature beyond his years rang true against Denmark and he would have been an equally deserved recipient.  Both players were responsible for last ditch tackles either to save goals or to cover for gaps on the flanks and here in lies the question: is the first team football really the Holy Grail to Scotland
selection? The answer is No.

Christophe Berra played over 30 games for Wolves last season, however in a Scotland shirt he still seemed bereft of positional sense, nervous and an ill-fit with Caldwell. Wilson on the other hand has played a finger full of games for Liverpool since signing from Rangers and has in my
opinion cemented the second centre half berth. Caldwell has matured into a fine defender at this level and with the inclusion of Wilson it allows him to be the sitting centre back holding position while Wilson does the charging down, it may be a grand statement but Wilson’s inclusion helps to make Caldwell a better player, less prone to those rushes to the heads that had previously surfaced.

In the full back areas on the right Alan Hutton will be first choice if he is ever fit but will he be a first choice at Spurs if hestays there? I doubt it, doesn’t stop him being the best man for the job for Scotland although in Phil Bardsley Scotland have an accomplished replacement with an edge that helps bring fans on side and if his performances for Sunderland are anything to go by a penchant for the spectacular.

In fact I would say the only position truly up for grab, apart from the numerous permutations available in midfield, is is that of left back with Stephen Crainey, Lee Wallace and Steven Whittaker the 3 candidates. Crainey seems to be the man in possession at the moment and although he has not made any mistakes as I write I feel like this sentence should read any mistakes…’yet’. I fear that his lack of pace will one day will be his undoing when it counts. Lee Wallace has been the one ear marked as the future for the position but he first of all has to prove his fitness and secondly displace the model of consistency that is Sasa Papac in the Rangers team to get regular games although if the form of Danny Wilson is a reference point if he is the best available then get him in. As for Steven Whittaker he just needs to start playing well again, once he does that he is the perfect utility full back to play either side and also move further up the pitch, although in an already crowded midfield that he would not be required in that role for the national side.

This has morphed into something else, more of a squad assessment than a look at the significance of first team football but I’m going to bring
it back to that to finish off. When Scotland go into the double header with Lithuania and Czech Republic there is a real possibility that key players such as Charlie Adam, Danny Wilson and possibly a fit again Darren Fletcher are not getting regular first team football. Do you then drop them because of this? Quite possibly the three best players at Scotland’s disposal, or do you play them knowing that they are the best that we have. If first team football becomes a necessity for a Scotland cap then soon we could have Gary Kenneth back in the team and nobody wants that. So the obvious answer is yes they play, they have to.

This is the trap that Craig Levein has to avoid when pressed on reasons for exclusion of the latest press darling during any squad announcement.  The term ‘he needs regular games’ is not to be used as it will be contradictory to the good work he is doing and will give a fresh opportunity for the doubters to surface. At the end of the day as proved by Danny Wilson if you are good enough no matter how often you play you should be in the squad and as long as Levein keeps true to this mantra going forward surely the only way is up, surely.

I’ve decided to include a video treat at the end of each article and nothing gives me more pleasure than to show you Scotland’s second
goal against Denmark as well the other goals from the match, from the great work at the back to the Hollywood ball from Don Cowie it was top class all the way. Enjoy!


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