CRAIG LEVEIN will have awoken this morning with the feeling that a noose has been removed from around his neck following his decision to recall Steven Fletcher.
For the best part of two years, the fallout with the ex-Hibs striker has plagued the Scotland manager almost as badly as his ill-fated 4-6-0 formation in Prague, which helped lead to Fletcher withdrawing his services from the national team.
Ever since those regrettable events, there has been a gloom around the national team, a sense that Levein was taking us nowhere fast. Of course, he is certainly not the first Scotland manager to find himself in such a position over the past decade or so. However, the Monday-night phonecall between Levein and Fletcher which saw them cast aside their respective grievances could yet prove to be the turning point in the reign of a manager who was beginning to have the look of a doomed man.
While advocating the return of an international refusenik doesn’t sit easily with this observer, Fletcher’s form in the English Premier League has made his absence from the squad look increasingly ridiculous. The impasse had to be ended one way or another for the good of Scotland. If nothing else, the return of the £12 million Sunderland man ensures the Tartan Army can now head to Cardiff next week with a renewed sense of optimism, as opposed to bracing themselves for another potential humiliation in the Welsh capital.
It has also helped get many of Levein’s critics off his back, although there are still plenty of cynics who would rather dwell on why it’s taken so long as opposed to simply embracing the fact we now have a striker who – having scored with each of his first five on-target attempts in a Sunderland jersey – might be capable of converting the rare chances that will come his way.
Kenny Miller, Jamie Mackie, Craig Mackail-Smith and Jordan Rhodes are the best alternatives to Fletcher and all have done an honest turn when called upon. However, it has been impossible to escape the notion that Scotland have lacked a genuine quality attacking focal point. Fletcher is accustomed to playing as a lone striker against some of the world’s top defenders, so he should have no problem fitting into Levein’s set-up.
The pressure on his shoulders will be immense, however. Let’s not forget, as well as Fletcher has done, he is not one of the world’s top strikers. If someone like Wayne Rooney can struggle to set the heather alight at international level, there is no guarantee that Fletcher will be our messiah. Indeed, it still remains highly unlikely that we will make it to the World Cup in Brazil. If nothing else, however, Fletcher’s recall has at least allowed a semblance of hope to return, and arguably serves as the most uplifting moment for the Scottish national team since the rousing win over Ukraine a full five years ago.