Scotland squad: Why months of struggles for many players could temper Euros belief

When discussing the Scotland national football team, concerns are often costed in.
Kieran Tierney has been on the bench in the main for Arsenal and could leave in the summer.Kieran Tierney has been on the bench in the main for Arsenal and could leave in the summer.
Kieran Tierney has been on the bench in the main for Arsenal and could leave in the summer.

And right now, when there ought to be anticipation for the beginning of a new qualifying campaign, inflationary pressures on this front are not to be trifled with. Indeed, there is a danger that the travails being endured by so many of Steve Clarke’s would-be personnel could cause a cost-of-belief crisis. On the surface, Scotland would appear to embark on their quest for a Euro 2024 berth – which will bring Cyprus to Hampden a week on Saturday, before Spain are hosted three days later – in good shape. It was only last September that they impressively claimed ten points from a run of four Nations League games, culminating in a heroic scoreless draw away to Ukraine that placed them at the summit of an international qualifying section for only the second time in four decades. That feat guarantees a play-off place for the finals in Germany that rolls around in a mere 15 months, regardless of how the forthcoming regular qualification process pans out.

However, for a whole host of those Scotland players involved in that admirable Nations League turnaround, the football world feels a different place five months on. And here’s the bottom line. In recent years there has been delight in Clarke’s available player pool containing so many performers making their presence felt with leading teams in an English Premier League regarded as the globe’s foremost league set-up. That was then. Now it could be argued not one player who, come Tuesday lunchtime, the Scotland manager will name in his squad for the Euro 2024 double-header later this month enjoys such a standing.

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Scotland captain Andy Robertson remains a vital cog in the Liverpool machine. That machine, though, is so capable of misfiring that the Anfield side lie a distant sixth in their top flight. Indeed, unless they produce the most extraordinary comeback in the Bernabeu against a Real Madrid, the record home European defeat suffered with the 5-2 defeat against the Champions League holders in their last 16 tie in the competition, could well give way to their last involvement at that level for the next year-and-a-half. It cannot be a given that Jurgen Klopp’s side – recent EPL and Champions League winners – will be able to produce the necessary push to finish in the top four and earn a berth in the blue riband tournament before then.

Ryan Fraser has been jettisoned to the Newcastle reserves.Ryan Fraser has been jettisoned to the Newcastle reserves.
Ryan Fraser has been jettisoned to the Newcastle reserves.

The problems are more personal for Kieran Tierney, Robertson’s left-sided partner in Scotland colours. His Arsenal side may be on the verge of a first title success in 19 years. Picking up a league winners’ medal may well be Tierney’s last act for the London club. Firmly out of favour, he has not started a game this year, and failed even to make it off the bench in seven of their past 11 outings. Usurped by Oleksandr Zinchenko, his frustrations are set to see him move on in the summer, with no shortage of suitors appearing willing to pony up the £30million fee Arsenal are reported to want for him.

His former Celtic team-mates Ryan Christie and Stuart Armstrong will know precisely how he is feeling. The pair have become increasingly more bit than part when it comes to their bit-part status for Bournemouth and Southampton respectively, two clubs struggling to escape the clutches of relegation. All too familiar with finding starts the rarest of commodities is also Manchester United’s Scott McTominay. As Erik Ten Hag has restored the Old Trafford club to top-three status, the Scotland midfielder has struggled to be among his team’s first XI. Two starts since October reflect that. It is worse for Ryan Fraser, completely out of the picture under Eddie Howe at Newcastle and training with the reserves.

Of course, Aston Villa’s captain John McGinn hasn’t struggled for game-time since recovering from a thigh injury at the start of the year. But the Birmingham club continue to reside in the bottom half of the Premier League. They are doing alright, which in the context of Clarke possibles, is a small win. His situation is the reverse of Billy Gilmour at Brighton. The south coast club are having a storming campaign as they mount a serious challenge for a Champions League slot. Gilmour, though, has featured in only two games in 2023, not helped by injury. Meanwhile, another Rangers product in Nathan Patterson has now lost first-choice for the right-back berth to Seamus Coleman at an Everton battling to avoid the drop.

At least these players are fit. And with their limited senior exposure at club level, will pitch up for their Scotland duties fresh and hungry. Not so sidelined Liverpool youngster Calvin Ramsay, Leeds United captain Liam Cooper, and Nottingham Forest’s Scott McKenna, hamstring problems having reared up again. However, undoubtedly the most problematic injury absence this month for Clarke will be Craig Gordon. The double leg-break that ended the season for 40-year-old Hearts’ captain on Christmas Eve will deprive the Scotland manager of a player he has selected for every one of the country’s last 17 outings. Including the 2-1 friendly defeat away to Turkey in November. This situation makes a call-up for Gordon’s Tynecastle understudy Zander Clark inevitable, likewise an introduction to the international scene for Norwich City keeper Angus Gunn in a move that would see him follow the footsteps of his father Bryan. The 27-year-old, capped by England at under-21 level, has been No 1 for the Championship side for the majority of this season.

John McGinn is back playing regularly for Aston Villa after injury.John McGinn is back playing regularly for Aston Villa after injury.
John McGinn is back playing regularly for Aston Villa after injury.

In terms of Scotland players actually enjoying wholly profitable spells at club level, these are not in plentiful supply beyond Celtic duo Callum McGregor and Greg Taylor and Hearts stand-in captain, 21-goal Lawrence Shankland. Assuming the hamstring injury that kept him out of his club’s back-to-back defeats against Celtic in the past week isn’t an issue longer term, there must be a case for Shankland leading the line against the Cypriots, if only because of the paucity of other options. Lyndon Dykes returned to the Queens Park Rangers line-up at the weekend following his recent hospitalisation for pneumonia. Meanwhile, his some-time frontline Scotland partner Che Adams has been ailing in the scoring department with only three goals since August as Southampton have become clamped at the foot of the English top flight. Clarke must lament that forward Ross Stewart, prodigious with Sunderland, had his season brought to a close by an Achilles issue six weeks ago in what has proved a hellishly accursed 2023 thus far for the national team. Without even playing a game.