ONE of the biggest dilemmas facing Gordon Strachan ahead of Scotland’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign is who should be first-choice goalkeeper.
Like two horses charging towards the finish line at Aintree, Allan McGregor and David Marshall are neck and neck in the race to be No.1 for the opening qualifier with Germany on September 7.
Steven Whittaker has played in front of both men on international duty and was a team-mate of McGregor’s at Rangers. He has also faced them in England’s Premier League, where Whittaker’s Norwich City have been left frustrated by the Hull City goalkeeper and his Cardiff City counterpart on several occasions.
For now, McGregor is the man in possession of the Scotland goalkeeping shirt and is therefore likely to start this evening’s friendly with Poland in Warsaw. There can be no room for complacency on his part, however, with Marshall excelling at club level.
“I saw that myself when we went to Cardiff recently,” explained Whittaker. “We got beat 2-1 and we were cruising in the game to be honest. We should never have lost the game. We lost two goals in the first five minutes of the second half. After that we had enough chances to win two or three games never mind one game. We missed a couple of them but we found Marsh on top form that day. I have seen it first hand and he is having a great season.
“That said, Allan has been our No.1 for a while now and rightly so. He is in great form and he has carried that with him with the moves he has had. He has been making some great saves for Hull City.”
Both Whittaker and McGregor are local Edinburgh boys who grew up to sample the bright lights of England’s top flight. Whittaker remembers McGregor earning a reputation as a top goalkeeper even as a kid.
“He is a little bit older than me. He did play in the same boys’ club as me, but he wasn’t in my age group so we didn’t really come across each other at all.
“When you are in the game you hear about who is good and who has a chance to make the grade and he was a goalie at Rangers who was highly thought of. I played against him when I was at Hibs and he did well to grab his position at Rangers. It is never easy at such a big club. He has done fantastic.”
Indeed, the majority of Strachan’s squad are now based south of the Border. Eighteen of the 23 Scotland players who touched down in Warsaw yesterday afternoon came from clubs in England in what is a clear sign of the times.
“A lot of us play down in England just now. The competition down there is fierce and it definitely brings you on as a player,” explained Whittaker. “There is competition down there and competition in the Scotland squad as well. I think it helps your concentration levels for one. You have to concentrate for the full 90 minutes playing in the English Premier League.
“They seem to be more ruthless down there. When they get opportunities to score, generally they take them, certainly the top teams anyway. Concentration levels are high and the quality of player you are playing against is high. Generally you are playing against internationals so it’s definitely a good standard.”
Whittaker’s own fortunes took a slight dip six weeks ago when he fell out of favour at Norwich and was relegated to the substitutes’ bench. He had been a regular starter for much of the season and is now having to fight his way back in. The inactivity has not affected his place in the Scotland squad, for the versatile defender is capable of occupying any of the full-back roles.
“I’ve been fit, I’ve been stripped and involved in every game. I just haven’t been playing,” he said. “I have had spells in the team and spells out of the team. It is just how our manager has seen it. Sometimes I feel I have come out of the team when I haven’t been doing anything wrong.
“I have just kept my head down, kept working hard and when an opportunity comes along to play I will try to do my best and impress. I have had a few runs in the team and have been doing okay and I have still found myself out of the team. It has been frustrating. Obviously you want to play in every game, as many games as possible. But there is only so much you can do.
“I am a right footed player so I tend to want to play on the right. But my versatility comes because I can use my left foot to a certain degree as well. It is not my strongest foot, but when I was at Hibs and at Rangers, although I played in a few positions there, I played predominantly as right-back and built my reputation there. That is my position and that is where I would like to play. But if the opportunity comes to play somewhere else I am going to take it.”
Inspiration can be derived from Alan Hutton, who has remained a Scotland regular over the last 12 months despite being completely out of favour at Aston Villa. “Ideally, I think we would all want to be playing minutes for our clubs, but it isn’t going to happen,” continued Whittaker. “Alan wasn’t in favour and has gone on loan to Bolton for a month. Hopefully he will look to get some minutes there.
“Even though he has not been playing too much at club level, when he has been asked to play for Scotland he has been brilliant. I think the manager reads a lot into training. If he sees you training well he believes you can do well in the game. My aim has been to try and impress in training this week. Hopefully I can be considered for the match tonight.”