If Alex McLeish was intent on one thing at Monday’s unveiling of his very first squad as Scotland national team manager it was that his time at Hampden would be completely and utterly different from his predecessors.
While the assorted media hummed and hawed over a relatively straight forward list of players, you can be certain that somewhere across the United Kingdom, Gordon Strachan winced and then let off one of his trademark, sarcastic remarks.
For you see, McLeish’s squad was made up of none other than 13 Premiership-based players in what was undoubtedly the most Scottish-based squad in recent memory. And on top of that, a huge swatch of them were young, untested talents too.
While the usual Celtic faces of Stuart Armstrong, Kieran Tierney and James Forrest were all included, they were joined by Callum McGregor; a player often shunned by Strachan until his final few months in the job.
Along with the Celtic contingent we also saw Aberdeen’s on-loan talents Ryan Christie and Kenny McLean included, as well as young, promising defender Scott McKenna. To make up for the departure of Scott Brown, McLeish turned to Hibernian’s exciting midfield duo of John McGinn and Dylan McGeouch. And the injured Craig Gordon was acutely replaced by Heart’s in-form shot-stopper Jon McLaughlin.
Indeed, if McLeish’s departure from the status quo set out over the previous four years wasn’t evident enough from his call ups he then went on to openly mull over who he’d be naming as his captain next week. With Brown retired, Gordon injured and Darren Fletcher left out of the squad altogether, McLeish instead turned his attentions to 20-year-old Tierney. “As regards the captaincy, I have not decided that yet,” noted the new Scotland boss. “But Tierney didn’t do himself any harm with his Pittodrie showing and the leadership that he showed as well.”
Although McLeish may still choose to opt for an older head – Gordon will most likely remain a key feature of his team, while experienced players like Russell Martin and Charlie Mulgrew were all included in this call up – the very fact that he’s considering Tierney shows his capacity to look beyond the dazzling lights of the Premier League or Championship and indeed the simple case for age and experience in identifying the very best players for the job.
Fletcher, a player that never really offered for Scotland what he did for Manchester United, should quite rightly feel the pressure of proving himself against the likes of McGinn, McGeouch or indeed Scott McTominay. So too should fellow underachievers like James McArthur, James Morrison and Barry Bannan, who have grown complacent and rested upon the simple fact they play their football south of the border.
Similarly, tried and truly uninspiring hallmarks of Strachan’s tenure such as Ikechi Anya and Chris Martin have instead been replaced by exciting, young players like Callum Paterson and Oliver McBurnie. Robert Snodgrass, who admittedly may be having something of a renaissance at Aston Villa this season, will most likely have to keep up such form if he is to reclaim his no.10 spot from the likes of McGregor or Christie.
A football team should either be successful or at least offer some degree of hope. Fans can often excuse misfortune if it offers a learning curve for potential. Strachan’s side had neither of those things and by the end of his time with Scotland most fans had not only decided he wasn’t the man to bring them success but also wasn’t capable of bleeding through the next generation of players.
In his final, crucial qualifying game away to Slovenia, the former Middlesbrough and Celtic manager called up a squad with an average age of 28.9 years. And the substitutes he used that night were all 29 or older. Contrastingly, McLeish’s first squad has an average age that has dropped down to 26.1 years.
With at least three friendlies against the likes of Costa Rica, Hungary and Belgium to experiment in before his very first competitive game against Albania in seven months time, McLeish not only has plenty of time to work out how his new-look team will come together in theory, but crucially has plenty of matches to test this squad of young players.
This summer’s World Cup will mark 20 years since Scotland qualified for an international tournament. And while the same old debates will rumble on about how best to reach such a competition, there’s little doubt that McLeish’s decision to include young players that still have the potential to make a difference will offer a welcome respite from the usual doom and gloom.
McKenna, McTominay, McGregor and McBurnie offer something Strachan’s team rarely could: Hope. And McLeish’s bold decision to include them from the very start is one that will be welcomed by the vast majority of the Tartan Army.