Amid the legitimate cheers about the effervescence that Scotland displayed going forward in their trouncing of Albania on Saturday night, it was easy to overlook the huge encouragement offered by a presence at the other end of the pitch for Alex McLeish’s men.
There was nothing flashy about David Bates’ debut in dark blue. That wasn’t what was required from the 22-year-old Hamburg defender, who was thrust into a reshaped back four for an awkward assignment when he wasn’t even included in the original squad for the decisive Nations League double-header. Bates’ remit was to keep it simple and, in tandem with central defensive partner Scott McKenna, provide the platform for Scotland’s phalanx of creative players to strut their stuff.
Indeed, it would surprise if watching a straight-up-and-down, ginger-haired centre-back revel in pulling on a Scotland shirt at senior level didn’t stir some fond memories for the 77-times capped McLeish.
Bates earned his move to Germany from Rangers on the back of proving an unruffled figure in the biggest of occasions – his marshalling of Moussa Dembele in the new year fixture last year made for the Ibrox club’s only clean sheet in the past 18 such fixtures. Since the summer, he has enjoyed a successful assimilation to 2. Bundesliga and as well as watching those games, McLeish could assess him against £100 million-worth of English front players in Scotland Under-21s’ 2-0 defeat by their border rivals.
“It was a huge night for David,” McLeish said of the Shkoder success that Bates was drafted in for, owing to the injury loss of centre-backs such as Charlie Mulgrew and John Souttar. “I spoke to him before it and he was cool. I have watched a lot of his games at Hamburg and he has played very well. They like him over there and have given great reports about him.
“When David played against the England Under-21s I also liked what I saw on that occasion. We have lost a lot of players through injury and it came down to David getting his chance. Maybe there was a wee bit of adrenaline at times against Albania but he has come such a long way in a short time.
“It takes personality to come into a first cap like that. I was watching him in the warm-up to see if his timing was right, because the Albanians are quite a physical team and play up to the striker a lot. But I have got to say he had a really solid, sound debut. He worked well alongside Scott McKenna and they dovetailed together.”
The dovetailing was never more accomplished than between the Scotland midfielders. Undoubtedly the Celtic connection between three current members of that team – Callum McGregor, Ryan Christie and James Forrest – and former player and now Southampton fringe-man Stuart Armstrong, underpinned the rhythm and fluency that Scotland produced to carve Albania open.
There is an element of serendipity about McLeish’s squad building but he will surely see the merit of his 4-1-4-1 system, and the players within it, for the must-win game tomorrow against Israel on which Scotland’s hope of topping the Nations League and producing a tangible sign of progress by claiming a Euro 2020 play-off berth will rest.
“We have had some twists in terms of players missing and not having full squads available in the past few games. Some things are outwith your control,” said McLeish. “But I know if we can get the right formula going forward we can produce that type of performance. McGregor has been in great form and is a really good footballer.
“We had a lot of really good footballers in that team in Albania. You wonder if the brawn can overtake the good football. But Stuart Armstrong’s legs were good. I know he has not played that much football and got a wee bit of cramp. Ryan Christie has taken it to another level with his performances for Celtic. Then both of the wide men, James Forrest and Ryan Fraser, showed brilliant form and got goals.”
McLeish is a likeable character who appears to have been assailed from all sides since the SFA induced collective groans by appointing him for a second spell in February subsequent to the failed pursuit of Michael O’Neill. None of that was the 59-year-old’s fault, and neither is it his fault that Scotland have appeared ill-fated in respect of injury call-offs – one of many factors to result in his tenure appearing so often framed in the negative, despite it now comprising two fine wins from only three competitive games. This notion that players are pulling out because they don’t care, or don’t care for the manager, has all become ludicrously overcooked.
“Are you starting to say that now, that they don’t want to play for me? Is that the inference?” he asked when asked about players’ commitment to the Scotland cause. “I don’t feel that. I don’t feel that. I think that’s doing a disservice to the medical staff if people think that, and to the clubs the players are coming from. A couple of guys have retired.
“The players that have pulled out of this double-header are with totally genuine injuries, there is no fabrication whatsoever. And we’ve had close contact through the medical people.”
Asked if the suggestion something more untoward was going on with the haemorrhaging of players from the squad, McLeish said: “I can’t work it out so it’s best I don’t talk about something I can’t control. I can only control the results.”
As long as his control over that aspect extends to finding the formula for a win against Israel, all the other froth will be flattened.