More than once, Gordon Strachan spoke about Scotland’s lack of a truly world-class talent and how it held back the country at international level. “We have nobody like [Gareth] Bale or [Robert] Lewandowski,” he bemoaned. One wonders what Strachan now thinks of the talent that has risen to the top since his Scotland departure.
It’s still true that Scotland lack a player of Bale or Lewandowski’s stature – these are guys who can win a game on their own, particularly at international level – but the current crop is the most exciting and accomplished since the Tartan Army last pitched up for an international tournament 21 years ago. So why don’t they turn up for their country?
Scotland needed their best players to carry them in the Euro 2020 qualification double-header against Russia and Belgium. It was in these two games that their chances of making it to next summer’s tournament would be made or broken. Of course, it was the latter as Steve Clarke’s side suffered successive defeats.
In Andy Robertson, Scotland currently boast one of the best full backs in Europe. Indeed, the 25-year-old is a European champion and an integral component of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
Yet for his country, Robertson is a shadow of the player he is for his club.
He might be surrounded by inferior players, but as Scotland’s best talent and captain, Robertson is expected to set a standard. He’s a long way from doing that.
Then there’s Scott McTominay, the midfielder who has become a mainstay of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United team in recent months. For United, the 22-year-old has hit a vein of form of late, but for Scotland this past week McTominay looked out of his depth. That might have been forgivable against Belgium, but was less so against an ageing Russia side.
Ryan Fraser was the Premier League’s most prolific assist maker behind Eden Hazard last season, but the Bournemouth man showed little of that creativity against Russia and was benched for Monday night’s qualifier as a result. James Forrest was the Scottish Premiership’s Player of the Year last season, but for Scotland you wouldn’t be able to tell.
Callum McGregor is another who has so far failed to reach the heights he has with his club for his country. This is a player Brendan Rodgers built his Treble Treble-winning Celtic team around, a player hailed by many as the most intelligent of his generation. For Scotland, however, McGregor is painfully one-dimensional.
John McGinn is another national team fans are entitled to feel shortchanged by. The 24-year-old has made an immediate impact with Aston Villa in the Premier League this season, but despite scoring the opening goal against Russia he allowed the match to pass him by, only coming off the bench against Belgium when the game was already lost.
The list continues. Oli McBurnie is a polarising figure for Scotland, but he is a striker who scored 22 times for Swansea City in the Championship last season before making the £20 million switch to Sheffield United this summer. Against Russia, though, McBurnie was a non-factor, a non-threat to the opposition goal.
Kieran Tierney is currently sidelined through injury and so escapes condemnation for what has happened over the past week, but he too is a player who has never truly found his place at international level. Scotland simply can’t afford to allow such a talent, now a £25 million star for Arsenal, go under-utilised.
They don’t have that luxury.
Clarke himself also deserves to be listed as a footballing talent who has so far failed to live up to his billing for the national team. It might be just four games into his tenure, but more was expected of the man who led Kilmarnock to a third-place finish and European football last season. Clarke was billed as an organiser and a maximiser of talent. There has been little sign of either in the early days of his Scotland reign.
There are deep-rooted issues at the top of the Scottish game. The Scottish FA have long been unfit for purpose, repeating the same mistakes and achieving the same substandard results. But the players on the pitch and even the manager on the touchline must also shoulder some of the blame for Scotland’s recent slide. For so long, the country hasn’t had the players to compete at international level. That excuse no longer washes.