If NOTHING else, the long-running stand-off between Craig Levein, the Scotland manager, and Steven Fletcher, the £12 million Sunderland striker, has served to prove that morals and principles count for little in the frenzied, illogical world of modern football.
On Sunday, Fletcher cranked up the pressure on – or threw an olive branch to – the increasingly-embattled Levein when he conveyed his willingness to end his international exile in a tweet to one of his followers. Ridiculous as it may seem, we now live in a world where a player can withdraw from his national squad with a text message and then declare his availability to return via a tweet to a random fan. It’s a sad state of affairs that the latter act is hailed as some sort of breakthrough moment.
For those of us who would walk over hot coals to be in a Scotland squad, it’s galling that a player can walk out on their country, show little obvious desire to return, yet still retain the support of the majority of his countryman. Nothing is sacred in football any more, it seems, certainly not a Scotland cap.
Fletcher, by all accounts, is not a bad lad; he has obviously shown a good attitude to get where he is in the game. But it still rankles with this observer that he has somehow emerged as the saint to Levein’s sinner throughout this petulant episode. The manager is entitled to select whoever he wants based on what he sees. If every player riled at being left out turned his back on Scotland the way Fletcher did after being omitted in the Czech Republic, we’d have nobody left to fill a subs’ bench and the national team would be non-existent. Kenny Miller and Charlie Adam were among the others disappointed at missing out on the night in question two years ago, but they didn’t withdraw their services. They stayed professional and knew that their chance would come. As did Ross McCormack when he was continually overlooked last season. Regardless of the manager’s perceived shortcomings, Fletcher should have become the villain of the piece in the eyes of the public when he sent that text, not the victim. Given the absence of any genuine regret since then, the public’s pining for his return – while understandable on a football level – has left a bad taste in the mouth. Do we really want to indulge a culture where players can feel comfortable walking away from international football when the going gets a bit sticky?
That said, the Scotland team is supposed to represent the nation and if, as seems to be the case, the majority of Scots are happy to welcome Fletcher back into the fold without so much as an apology to those he has let down, then perhaps now is the time for Levein to bow to pressure and recall him. While some show of sorrow before now would have made a Fletcher recall more palatable, in his defence, he is a young man who doesn’t seem to have the know-how to resolve the situation. “Will I make the call? I just feel as though I’d be made to look like an absolute kn*b, know what I mean?” he said in an interview a year ago.
With this in mind, perhaps Levein, although justifiably irked by the way Fletcher’s name has become such a tight noose around his neck, should see his tweet as some kind of attempt at building bridges. With the manager’s back firmly against the wall, there is no doubt he could do with Fletcher leading the attack in Wales next month. Morally, it would seem wrong to put a refusenik like Fletcher in ahead of Miller, Jordan Rhodes, Jamie Mackie or even McCormack, who have always turned up and taken their turns on the bench. But rightly or wrongly, the public want Fletcher back and we now know the player is willing to return.
Levein is well within his rights to stick to his guns and “uphold the rules”, as he puts it. But if he could somehow divorce himself from his principles, Sunday’s tweet could yet prove to be the catalyst for keeping him in a job. After all, goals win games – morals and rules don’t.