For a while, the Scottish national team was something of an exclusive club. The bouncers at the door worked through a pretty simple flow chart to determine who was allowed in and who wasn’t. Do you play for a Premier League club? Yes, you’re in. If not, then do you play for Celtic or Rangers? Yes, you’re in. No, well not tonight pal.
This is beginning to change and non-Old Firm players from the Scottish Premiership are being given a chance to show what they can do for their country. When Scotland took on and defeated Albania 2-0 in the UEFA Nations League on Monday night, Alex McLeish selected six Scotland-based players in his staring XI and only three of this half dozen play for Glasgow’s big two.
John Souttar and Steven Naismith have both been in excellent form for top-of-the-table Hearts and they were both given a chance, with Soutter turning in a very solid performance in the three-man back line, while Naismith scored one and forced the own-goal opener. Like Souttar, Kilmarnock’s Stephen O’Donnell was rewarded with his first competitive cap for his eye-catching performances in the league and he was one of Scotland’s best players on Monday night, if not the best, as he burst up and down the right flank.
Of course, there were Old Firm players too and there’s nothing wrong with that, as many of the better players in any country naturally migrate to the bigger clubs. Rangers’ Allan McGregor was rewarded for his Europa League qualifying heroics by being handed the goalkeeping gloves, while Celtic’s Kieran Tierney and Callum McGregor were on the pitch too and were two of the best performers. When Leigh Griffiths came on as a second-half substitute, the Scottish Premiership contingent was up to seven, an unthinkable number just a few years ago.
By contrast, when Scotland took on Malta in their first World Cup qualifier under Gordon Strachan two years ago, there were seven players from the English Championship in the starting XI and just one from the Scottish Premiership. This time around there weren’t even that many from England’s second tier in McLeish’s entire squad, which was made up of 11 Scottish Premiership players, seven English Premier League players, three English Championship players and one from the MLS.
Of course, the league a player participates in doesn’t mean they are categorically good or bad and, in fact, one of the English Championship players in the current set-up is Aston Villa’s John McGinn, perhaps the most promising Scottish talent of all right now. If players are pulling up trees in England’s second tier then they should be in the squad.
But the presence of so many Scottish Premiership players is a positive precisely because it proves that McLeish isn’t looking at the league badge of the players’ shirt sleeves. The national team boss should be picking those who are playing well and who are in form, but for too long the Scottish players who were dazzling north of the border and outside of the Glasgow bubble were overlooked. McLeish, though, has chosen those who he thinks are in form, even if they’re at Hearts, Aberdeen or Kilmarnock.
This is why it’s so refreshing that half the members of his September squad were from Scottish teams. There is so much talent in the SPFL at the moment, especially at the top half a dozen clubs, as evidenced by the Scottish clubs’ good European qualifying performances last month. For these players’ impressive displays for their clubs to translate into Scotland caps is encouraging. Long may it continue.
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