Easter Road becomes an audition theatre this evening for many Scotland players. Those not certain to start Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Slovenia must impress in the friendly with Canada, then hope national coach Gordon Strachan keeps them centre stage.
Andy Robertson, the Hull City left-back, is one of the 28-man squad effectively on trial. He might play regularly in England’s Premier League but an abundance of quality in his position means nothing is guaranteed. If he starts tonight, Robertson knows he must deliver to strengthen his case for Sunday.
The Rangers captain Lee Wallace and Celtic teenager Kieran Tierney provide strong competition for the left-back berth. It is arguably Scotland’s strongest area and no-one wants to find themselves in the role of an extra come the weekend. Others like Tom Cairney, Ryan Fraser, John McGinn, Liam Cooper, Barry Bannan, Leigh Griffiths and Jordan Rhodes face similar fights to force their way into Strachan’s thoughts for the must-win Slovenia tie. This is effectively a mass trial in Leith.
“You could say it’s like that,” said Robertson. “There are a few new lads looking to impress and a few lads back in who haven’t been in the squad for a while. You need to keep the squad hungry and I’m sure the manager will give plenty of players game time tonight. You got to try and take your chance. He might have sorted his team for Sunday but none of us will know that. It is like an audition because you’re trying to get a place for Sunday.
“I think it’s quite a good thing having the Canada game. We don’t know what the manager’s thinking – if he’s uncertain on every position or just one position. All the lads have to try and impress in this game and use it as a platform. Whether it’s a friendly or not, if you win then it builds confidence. If we get a win tonight then we can take it into Sunday.”
Robertson, 23, holds 12 full caps and knows there are capable candidates vying for his position. “Lee and KT are here as well as me. Charlie [Mulgrew] can play left-back as well. Arguably there are four who can play that position. We’re all having quite a good season and we’re all confident. It’s for the manger to decide, it’s his headache. I’m glad we don’t need to pick the team.
“I don’t think if someone plays brilliantly against Canada they are guaranteed to play on Sunday. You have auditions every week when you are playing for Hull, or when KT plays for Celtic, or when any of the boys play for their teams. The manager is watching every game and, when it comes to calling up the squad, he will base that on performances for your club.
“The Canada game, if you play well it might mean you are in with more of a chance but the manager will make his call in training and what he thinks his best team is for Sunday. There will be two of us disappointed because we have three left-backs but the two will have to deal with that, whoever they are.”
One small consolation for anyone left out is that Strachan usually makes time to explain his thought process privately. It is a human touch which not all managers indulge in, but which is greatly appreciated by players.
“I remember Poland away was one of my first squads,” said Robertson. “I played in the game before against Georgia as it was a double header but the manager pulled me to one side and said he was playing Steven Whittaker at left-back. He said he needed experience because the game was away to Poland. You accept that.
“I was 19 at the time and I didn’t have the experience. Whitts was a seasoned pro and I completely accepted that. Some managers just pick the team and let the boys deal with it but the manager here speaks to you. It does make you feel a bit better even though you’re still disappointed.
“Thirty players were called up [reduced to 28 after call-offs] so there will be plenty disappointed boys on Sunday. We just need to deal with it and see what team he puts out. If you’re on the bench, you just need to make an impact if he puts you on.”
Which is why tonight’s friendly carries real purpose despite ticket sales being slow so far. Easter Road may be less than half full, however no-one in the Scotland camp views this as simply a meaningless friendly. Apart from the Slovenia match being in the back of everyone’s minds, there is still that unique buzz about representing your country.
“Any game is like that, I don’t even think it changes with age,” said Robertson. “I’m close to a few older boys in the squad and they all still get excited, friendly or not. People might think it’s a distraction but we’re not thinking like that. We can see positives in Wednesday and hopefully the manager sees that as well. We can analyse it and see what we’re doing wrong and then sort it out for Sunday. Slovenia is a big match.”
Hampden’s famous roar has been muted slightly with Scotland second bottom of World Cup qualifying Group F. In fact, the last competitive victory over a major nation was back in November 2014 when Republic of Ireland were beaten 1-0 at Celtic Park. Robertson was a key performer that night.
“Since my debut, I’ve played in a few big games,” he said. “England was a massive highlight but I think my biggest highlight was Ireland at home. Playing in such a big game at Parkhead and to get that result, I thought that was my best game in a Scotland shirt. That was the biggest.
“I’d like to have played in a few more. For one reason or another, I’ve been left on the bench. I respect the manager massively so, whatever his decision is, I’ll respect it. He always gives you his thoughts on it and as long as he does that you’re fine with it. I want to play more qualifiers but I’ve got to take my chance when he does give me the nod.”
What happens in Leith this evening could have a major bearing on events in Mount Florida in four days’ time. Scotland’s players know it is time to perform in their audition theatre.