DARREN FLETCHER will be named Scotland captain for a second time following Scott Brown’s international retirement. The midfielder from Mayfield, near Edinburgh, is to have the armband returned to him by national coach Gordon Strachan before next month’s opening World Cup qualifying tie in Malta.
It represents the final step in Fletcher’s recovery from ulcerative colitis, the illness which robbed him of two years of his career. He relinquished the Scotland captaincy in 2011 when announcing he would take an extended break from football for health reasons.
Brown was appointed skipper but the Celtic midfielder called time on his international career last week. Fletcher, now 32 and thriving as captain of West Bromwich Albion, will lead Scotland forward into their World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign.
Strachan named a 27-man squad yesterday for the first assignment at the Ta’Qali Stadium a week on Sunday. He is expected to favour experience for a potentially tricky tie in hot and humid conditions. Fletcher and others must continue the standards set by Brown and lead younger members of the squad by example. Amongst them are Hearts players Jack Hamilton and Callum Paterson, plus Hibs midfielder John McGinn.
“When you’re a young pro, the best lessons I learned was watching good pros,” said Strachan. “Where was Dalglish going in the afternoon? He was going to his bed. I’ll have a bit of that. He’s drinking water. I’ll have a bit of that. He’s not going to the pub. I’ll have a bit of that. So you pick up good stuff.
“We’ve got people like Maloney, Brown, Greer, Martin, who have set good standards over the last three to four years. It’s how you have standards in international football, but the best way to deal with international level is by getting more players into European football.”
In particular, Brown’s insistence on playing through injury typified his dedication to Scotland’s cause. “He goes into the ‘mate’ category now I’m not his manager,” smiled Strachan. “I think he came to training at times when we knew he wasn’t fit but he knew as a captain that’s what you do – you get out there. He’s had to deal with injuries for a couple of years now and he’s set those standards on and off the pitch. Maybe it’s hampered him in the long run, so now he’s going to get a nice wee break.”
Those he leaves behind are tasked with ending Scotland’s long-running wait to appear at an international tournament. That will have reached 20 years when the finals begin in Russia. To buck the trend, they must succeed in a group containing England, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta.
Ruffling feathers of bigger nations is high on Strachan’s agenda. The failure to upset favourites Germany during European Championship qualifying was costly, although defeat in Georgia was equally damaging. Friendly losses against Italy in May and France in June came without a goal, the 3-0 result against the French underlining how far Scotland are from Europe’s top nations. Strachan remains upbeat, however. He experienced mixed emotions at the end of the Euro 2016 campaign and stressed the need to confront the big nations in Scotland’s qualifying group head-on. “I feel good. You bear it all in mind,” he said. “You think, well, we had 12,000 people away to Gibraltar clapping and singing and saying: ‘Well done, you gave it a good shot.’ And then you meet people in the street who say: ‘You’re doing fine.’
“So now we have to take it a stage further and find three more points – a big win – somewhere in the group. Also, I like coaching. I like being with the players, mingling with them, working with them. So I’m excited about that. I know it will be stressful at times but it’s a great challenge. Also, having a couple of younger players in there freshens it up a bit. It definitely adds something.”
Once the new captain is officially confirmed, Strachan will turn his attention to a starting line-up to face Malta. There would appear to be little doubt that Leigh Griffiths will lead the forward line. The Celtic striker has already scored four goals in six games this season – three of them in the European arena Strachan believes is the ultimate test of players.
“His current form is terrific but, if you are talking about over a longer period of time, we all know fine well that your form goes up and down. So we’ll have to have a group ready for anybody who steps out of form so someone else can step in,” said the national coach.
“I think Leigh’s been improving in the past two years. The big one for me was the first goal [against Hapoel Tel Aviv] with the header where he made up eight yards on someone when he only needed to go two yards. That’s hunger. That’s bravery. I see that in his movement in the box now.
“He’s taking a chance and going to meet the ball at pace so he gets more power in the header. Look at his heading in the past two years. That’s improving. We’ve got Griffiths, Kieran Tierney, James Forrest and Craig Gordon playing in Europe. That definitely helps them.”
Hearts were also in continental competition until a Maltese team – Birkirkara – eliminated them at the second qualifying stage of the Europa League last month. Is that a warning Scotland should heed before travelling to the Mediterranean island?
“I don’t think we needed it. We’ve been watching Malta over the past month on video and live. I don’t think we needed it but maybe the public needed it to understand what we are up against,” said Strachan.
“Italy beat them 1-0. They are hard to play against. There’s two or three good players in there. I can’t remember having an easy game at all in football. We’re thinking about the right person to send over to watch them and I think there will be someone going over.
“I don’t want to break up my coaches. I want to keep them altogether – Andy Watson, Mark McGhee and myself. There will be someone going out. Andy Ritchie is working for us as well, so it might be him.”