BILLY STARK today explained that he is trying to protect Hearts’ young players by leaving some of them out of his Scotland Under-21 squad. Ahead of tonight’s European Under-21 Championship qualifier with Slovakia.
Ahead of tonight’s European Under-21 Championship qualifier with Slovakia, Stark revealed that certain Tynecastle players are absent because he felt they needed resting.
Callum Paterson, Jason Holt and Jordan McGhee are in the group to face Slovakia in Paisley and Georgia in Tbilisi on Monday. However, Kevin McHattie, Jamie Walker, David Smith, Brad McKay and Jack Hamilton – all of whom have been in recent Scotland Under-21 squads – were omitted.
Stark has watched Hearts first-hand in recent weeks and concluded that the demand of playing week in and week out at first-team level might be taking its toll on some. With his club in administration and under a transfer embargo, the Hearts manager Gary Locke cannot sign players and is relying on a host of youth academy graduates.
In an effort to prevent burnout and avoid overburdening the youngsters, Stark took the decision to leave certain ones out after consulting Locke. “I’ve been talking to Gary constantly over the season and I recognise they are almost playing an under-21 team there. It’s a heavy schedule for them,” said Stark.
“I was at the Queen of the South game in the League Cup and it looked like it was catching up with one or two of them, to be honest with you. That’s nobody’s fault. It’s not the players’ fault. They will want to play. It’s certainly not Gary Locke’s fault because he doesn’t have any other players, so it’s a combination of those things.
“I said that to him. Ones that have been with us, we’ve left out just to lighten the load a wee bit and we’re both happy with that. I think you have to be careful in this situation. Ryan Jack at Aberdeen, for example, has played a lot of football so it’s not a case of protecting individuals because everybody would then phone up and say they didn’t want players to play.
“The Hearts situation was my decision, to just leave some of them because they look a wee bit tired. That’s not to say they won’t be involved in future.”
As well as leaving the door wide open for Hearts players to return, Stark is keen that those from other clubs do not become disheartened or give up on their Scotland Under-21 ambitions. In particular, Livingston’s Stefan Scougall and Stuart Bannigan of Partick Thistle are only just back from injury and are competing for places in a congested midfield at international level.
“We have a lot of quality in the middle of the park,” said Stark. “Stuart Bannigan missed out last time through injury and we have Dylan McGeouch, Fraser Fyvie, Stuart Armstrong, Jason Holt and Lewis Macleod in there. Stuart is just coming back from that ankle injury and Stefan Scougall is the same. It’s pretty competitive in that area.
“There are one or two other areas where probably you feel you could be a wee bit strong in terms of depth. In midfield, there’s Scougall, Bannigan, Rhys McCabe, Kenny McLean. That’s a lot of players and you can’t pick them all unfortunately. We want them to value being picked, come and enjoy it and give their lot when they’re with us. I think we have a group that does that.”
In previous years, under-21 players might have found it easier to earn international recognition playing first-team football in the Scottish Championship, or First Division as it used to be known. However, financial issues dictate that more and more young players are gaining first-team exposure in the top flight. That leaves those in the second tier often out of the squad.
“I would agree with that, but I think it always comes down to judgment of a player,” Stark replied. “There will be little things like players coming back from injury or looking a wee bit tired, but I think you just make a choice about the balance of the squad and the balance of the team.
“It’s obviously a consequence that a player or two miss out.
“I don’t think I’ve ever dismissed anybody because they’re with us and then they drop out. You never know what’s in front of you. If a player finds a bit of form, they can get back in again. That midfield area has been strong and we’re quite happy with how we’ve played with Holt, Fyvie, McGeouch and Lewis Macleod. I would be lying if I said that these ones are so outstandingly better than the others that they have to be there. It’s not a case of that. Sometimes it’s just a wee gap and maybe just down to circumstances at the time. You always have to leave room for one or two to force their way in there. By the same token, you wouldn’t want to have a new squad every time you have a game. Every time the squad has been named, one or two have been able to do that.”
Scotland need points from these upcoming matches to help move up their European Under-21 qualifying section. Slovakia sit joint top having taken six points from their opening two games along with Holland. Georgia and Scotland are both joint third with three points. The next few days could go a long way towards determining whether Stark and his players can reach the 2015 finals in the Czech Republic.