SCOTLAND have lost only one competitive international with Andy Webster on the pitch, a heartening statistic ahead of the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Webster, Christophe Berra and Gary Caldwell should form the spine of Craig Levein’s team against both Serbia and Macedonia, with Webster in particular now back to his very best.
It is seven years since the 30-year-old last played competitively for his country, in a 3-0 victory in Slovenia in October 2005. The hiatus has seen him sample euphoric highs and skull-crushing lows. Now he is back and eager to continue an impressive record as the World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign begins this weekend.
Webster has played ten qualification matches for Scotland since his maiden cap in a friendly against Austria in 2003. The only time he suffered defeat in those games was at home to Norway in 2004. He appeared to have drifted into international wilderness as injuries and loss of form saw him marginalised at Rangers. Since returning to Hearts, he has grown in strength and recaptured the consistency which once made him an automatic choice for the national team.
Now he finds himself almost on the brink of a milestone. Webster could become the most capped internationalist in Hearts’ history in the not-too-distant future. He currently sits just eight appearances shy of Steven Pressley’s record of 32 Scotland caps achieved whilst at Tynecastle. Webster has 25 in total to his name, but one was earned during a loan spell with Dundee United in 2010. Behind Pressley is the Hearts legend Bobby Walker, who amassed 29 caps.
Ironically, it was Pressley who helped prepare Webster for international stardom during the early years of his senior career. He believed the young centre-back was a record cap holder in the making. “I played with Andy in the national team when he was only 21 years of age. I thought he could potentially go on and become one of the most capped players of all time,” said Pressley, now managing Falkirk.
“Unfortunately he lost his way a little bit in his career. I think he deserves great credit for the way he’s come back over the last few seasons. His recent performances are that of a very assured and mature defender. He’s probably reaching the pinnacle of his footballing career just now, his best years where he’s got that experience, know-how and belief.
“I’m delighted he’s back involved with Scotland. I didn’t see the Liverpool-Hearts game but by all accounts he was outstanding. He should take a great deal of confidence from that, especially playing against one of the most potent and revered strikers in England (Luis Suarez). His performance in the last international against Australia was a very assured performance.
“Craig Levein has always admired Andy’s ability and, as a manager, he’s always been someone who could get the best out of Andy. There seems to be a trust between the two. It’s not only down to that. I think Andy’s demonstrated over the last couple of years – at Dundee United and then his return to Hearts – what a good player he is. Although you need a manager who believes in you and trusts you, Andy deserves a lot of credit himself.
“He was in the wilderness for a while there at Rangers. There must have been elements of doubt in his mind but he’s managed to rebuild his career, both domestically and internationally.
“I’m really pleased for him because, as a young player, I thought he had all the attributes to go on and be a really successful international player. That’s come a bit later and we’ve maybe had to be a bit more patient with him. Now he’s beginning to fulfil his potential.”
As for Webster’s excellent competitive record in dark blue, Pressley believes that is mirrored by the Scotland squad overall. “It is a very good record he’s got but Scotland’s results during qualifying campaigns are reasonably good. I think the biggest problem is friendly games. Sometimes the friendlies don’t carry the same intensity when you’re playing at Hampden in front of a relatively low attendance. It doesn’t create that edge to the game. Scotland, as a team, need to play with an edge. Under Craig Brown and Berti Vogts Scotland didn’t have a particularly good friendly record.”
There should be no missing edge or intensity when Serbia and Macedonia arrive at Hampden Park. Scotland need to begin this campaign positively, ideally with two victories from two home encounters, if reaching the World Cup finals in Brazil in two years’ time is to be considered realistic. “It’s an advantage starting with two home games but only if you win then,” cautioned Pressley, who was part of the Scotland coaching staff under Levein’s predecessor, George Burley.
Levein is expected to deploy Webster and Berra together in central defence, with Caldwell filling the defensive midfield berth. The manager’s formation is tried and trusted and, perhaps with minor tinkering, is the formula he will use in an attempt to guide Scotland to their first World Cup finals in 16 years.
“Craig has opted for the 4-1-4-1 formation regularly and it’s proved to be relatively successful,” observed Pressley. “Personnel aside, the players look to have a real understanding of the system and that’s important against the top teams in the world. Everyone has to understand their roles and responsibilities. The one thing Craig will do is play players in their correct positions and pick players suited to that position.
“The one thing I know is Craig will have a plan on how to win these games. He’s meticulous in his preparation so I’m really hopeful of seeing Scotland get two good results. Particularly for Craig because I know the type of work he puts in to make his teams successful.”