THE SUN is burning into Steven Hammell’s back and the flight to Zagreb doesn’t leave for another 24 hours. The Motherwell defender isn’t flustered despite rising temperatures at Scotland’s team headquarters. If you don’t like the heat, get out of the hotel. Or something like that.
Or something like that. Hammell is relishing the pressure and wants to make Friday’s World Cup qualifier in Croatia count. To him, it is anything but meaningless.
At 31, he is out to impose himself on national coach Gordon Strachan and finally carve an international career for himself. He is inspired by the Scotland fortunes of another accomplished left-back, Tosh McKinlay, whose first international appearance came at the age Hammell is right now. McKinlay went on to experience a World Cup and a European Championship finals in dark blue – achievements even the most seasoned Scotland player would kill for right now.
Hammell has completed another outstanding campaign with Motherwell with the reward of a Scotland call-up. It is nine years since his debut in a 4-1 friendly defeat to Sweden under the late Tommy Burns. The wait has been long, he knows he isn’t going to play forever, so he’d better make this opportunity count.
“Someone told me that (about McKinlay) when I got called up. I didn’t realise that,” said the left-back. “Tosh was a great player. I can’t say I am just happy to be here, thanks for the call-up, I am going enjoy the week then I am going to go home. I can’t think like that. I have got to think about progressing and continuing to get better. You use something like Tosh breaking through at this age as inspiration, definitely.
“Playing with these guys and learning off the manager, you can only improve. That’s what I plan to do. You have got to seize the moment, and I think this has given me the really good, positive kick that I needed. I don’t think being 31 is a handicap. I feel as fit now as I ever have done. Age is a number. People say if you are good enough you are old enough, and I think that works both ways. If you are playing at a decent level, and you are over 30, it is not a problem. Not for me, anyway.”
Many would prefer to forget that night against the Swedes at Easter Road, but Hammell recalls it with a hint of fondness. “It was a squad where there were a lot of new faces, and Tommy Burns was trying a few things. He was bringing in a few people to have a look at them. I remember the game quite well. We played against a very strong Sweden side, but I don’t feel in any way it was a 4-1 game. After that match, you were hoping you would stay in the plans. I didn’t think it would be nine years before I got called up again, but I am absolutely delighted that I have now got the chance again.
“You always looked at the squads to see if you were include, but the standard of the squads has been really good. Most of the boys who have been in it were either playing for the Old Firm or for Premiership clubs in England. So, you couldn’t really question any decisions. You always looked and hoped when the squads were picked, but you didn’t really think you were going to be called up. I’m in here now, and my aim is to try and impress enough to stay in the manager’s thoughts.”
There is no question Motherwell’s success has helped his case, plus the fact his club manager Stuart McCall is on Strachan’s coaching staff. “You have got to have that positive mind set all the time,” said Hammell. “You can’t come in thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be here’, tip-toeing about people. The boys have been great and have made me feel welcome. At Motherwell, we have had a good season, so it was good to get some recognition for the club as well. That was really pleasing because we did have a really good season last year, and hopefully, we can start next season well, also.
“Trying this week to convince the manager that you are good enough to be in the team, not just the squad, has got to be the aim. You are delighted first and foremost to be called up, but, once you get here, you want to impress, and that is what I have been trying to do. It’s a combination of what you have done over the past few years and what you can show in training here.
“I know there have been a few call-offs and I have spoken to the manager and to Stuart McCall. They have made me aware the manager has watched me a few times this season and has been impressed. It’s now good to get a feel for one another when you are actually taking part in the sessions. You are trying to show him what you can do and what you can bring to the team. It has been a tough few days, but really enjoyable.”
For a player whose CV details only Motherwell and Southend United, the prospect of confronting Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic in the Maksimir Stadium should be rather daunting. Yet Hammell is relaxed, even though the sun is relentlessly blazing through the glass on to his shoulder blades. He stays cool in hot surroundings, which could come in rather useful on Friday night. There is no apprehension.
“None at all,” he continued. “There are some top players in our squad. Obviously the results could have been better, but we have got a great bunch of players here, and there is nothing to fear going into the game. We are under no illusions it is going to be a tough match, but we are working really hard with double training sessions to gear up towards it.”
And while some players may rue double sessions in June when most others are on holiday, Hammell can’t get enough of it. He gets up and expresses his gratitude that the interview has ended, sparing him from those burning rays through the window. Off he saunters to prepare for more training. This is a chance he is determined not to waste.