Facing England is best pick-me-up for Scotland U-21s

Ryan Porteous in the thick of it against the Auld Enemy in the Toulon Under-21 tournament in France this summer
Ryan Porteous in the thick of it against the Auld Enemy in the Toulon Under-21 tournament in France this summer
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Ryan Porteous reckons that Scotland’s Under-21 side are better prepared for tonight’s clash with England at Tynecastle than the last time the countries met only five months ago.

Back then, in the semi-final of the prestigious Toulon Tournament in the south of France, the young Scots were well beaten despite taking a first-half lead through Celtic’s Michael Johnston.

Today the omens don’t look much better for Porteous and his team-mates, however, as they prepare to face England again in their final qualifying match for next summer’s Euro finals in Italy, a fixture which, to all intents and purposes, is a dead rubber after Scot Gemmill’s side crashed to a 3-1 defeat in Ukraine a few days ago.

But as far as Hibs defender Porteous is concerned, there is no better pick-me-up than to face an English side which, thus far, has cruised through their qualifying campaign without defeat.

“It doesn’t matter what the competition is, or if it is a friendly, insisted the 19-year-old, “If it’s against England we will give it everything we can to win. It’s not going to be a friendly match, it will be a heated game.

“It’s definitely not a dead rubber, we want to win it. It’s like a derby when you play Hearts.”

Porteous was a total newcomer to the Under-21 camp back in June, winning rapid promotion for his performances for the Under-19s, but he has nailed down his place in central defence. And, given he is still eligible for the next campaign at that level, he looks certain to be one of coach Gemmill’s first picks.

He said: “I really enjoyed the game in Toulon. We did well in the fist half and the whole 15 minutes of the team talk at half-time was all about us keeping it tight, not to let them come out of the traps.

“Maybe they got a bit of a rollicking, but they came out flying and scored three goals in the first 20 minutes of the second half.

“Maybe we were just not experienced enough to deal with the quality England have. But we want to be ready for what they have. We are an experienced bunch now at club and international level, hopefully that will benefit us.”

Porteous is well aware of the calibre of player in the England squad, reeling off the names of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who scored a hat-trick in their 7-0 win over Andorra last time out, Tammy Abraham and Adam Armstrong.

However, Porteous isn’t at all interested in such a pedigree, saying: “If you look too much into who you’re playing it can sometimes distract you from your own gameplan. If we focus on ourselves, the task in hand and the gameplan Scot has put out, and execute it, then hopefully it takes us through.”

Porteous believes the fact that games against England – at any age level – are a rarer commodity in the modern era, only adds that little bit of an extra edge in any match against the Auld Enemy.

He said: “It’s quite a new thing for my generation, I’ve only seen two or three in my lifetime. You always want to watch those games and to be part of it at 21s level is just as special.

“It’s like a derby. It’s like playing Hearts, you want to win it no matter if there’s a chance of qualifying or not, that’s what we are setting our sights on.”

Scotland’s hopes of earning themselves a play-off shot at making the finals evaporated as they went down 3-1 in Kiev despite having taken the lead within the first minute through Lewis Morgan and, admitted Porteous, they had let that chance slip through their fingers. He said: “I don’t think it was a 3-1 game. The first goal was a deflection, the second an error and we were chasing the game for their third. We had game plan and executed it to the best of our ability but it was just final errors.

“Some people might say we scored too early and sat too deep, but it’s all in the past now. I had a couple of headers I should have done better with and we know it’s chance missed but we just have to dust ourselves off because it’s a massive game against England.”

If, ultimately, the young Scots failed, Gemmill can point to the fact that three of the players who started the campaign with his squad have now progressed to the full international set-up, Hearts’ John Souttar, Scott McKenna of Aberdeen and Oli McBurnie, on loan at Barnsley from Swansea City. And he makes no secret of the fact that his long-term goal is to follow in their footsteps, insisting that there’s still a place in today’s game for big physical defender. And the opportunity, should he continue to do well, is to accelerate his career in the same manner as McKenna.

“I think Scott has shown that, coming from a couple of years ago when he was struggling to get a game at Ayr to being one of the best centre-halves in the league, and up there as one of the country’s best centre-halves. He’s shown there’s a massive chance to take there. It’s looking up at players like him and Jack Hendry... there’s no reason why there isn’t the chance for myself and David [Hamburg’s David Bates] to get a chance too.”

Despite his tender years, Porteous believes his game is maturing and although he still winces at the memory of being shown the red card early in his time with the Under-19s, he insisted no-one will ever be able to take his love of making a tackle away from his game.

“If you’ve watched me over the last few years you’ll see it’s definitely one of my strong points. It’s the part of the game I enjoy most, and defending.

“It’s something me and the coaching staff at Hibs have worked on quite closely. It’s about experience, playing games and knowing when to tackle and when to pull out.

“So it’s something I’ve learned, I’ve done a lot of work on it and I’m benefitting.

“It’s all about the timing and the parts of the pitch you do it. It’s a part of my game I don’t want to remove completely.

“I think it is a good asset to have, it can lift the team and sometimes lift the crowd, a big tackle, interception or block can do that.”

Stevie Mallan, a Hibs team-mate of Porteous for Scotland Under-21s, has joked that the defender’s eyes light up when he sees a 50-50 opening up and Porteous admitted, it’s most definitely true, adding: 
“It’s like a goalscoring opportunity.

“For defenders you don’t get the chance to score gals as much, so it’s always been that way for me.”