Matt Ritchie sure Alex McLeish will find right blend for Scotland
Alex McLeish has four more games in which to whip into shape a squad he believes capable of steering Scotland to the European Championships in two years.
And, according to Matt Ritchie, as disappointing as McLeish’s first outing as boss of the national squad second time around might have been, the early signs are promising.
A 1-0 defeat by Costa Rica, a country ranked six places above the Scots in FIFA’s rankings and one yet again heading for the World Cup finals was, however, hardly unexpected, “Los Ticos” full of players battle hardened at that level against a new-look Scotland side containing, at the start of the match, four new caps.
Although the Central Americans claimed victory with a 14th-minute goal from Marcos Urena, their top scorer in qualifying for this summer’s jamboree in Russia, they gave the impression that, if necessary, they could quickly go up through the gears.
Whether it was the visitors playing within themselves or the Scots stepping up the pace, the second half provided at least a little to stir the half-empty Hampden stands.
The Newcastle United wideman said: “It would have been nice to win but I think you could see in the first half a lot of guys hadn’t played together and weren’t sure at times of each other. But I think there were positives - and positives in the second half for sure.
“We’d only had three or four days’ training with the manager with completely new ideas. There’s players from different clubs and to get to know each other takes time. I think Friday night was a very good exercise for that, from the first half to the second there were improvements and if we continue to improve and progress that quickly then I’m sure we will be ready for the competitive matches.”
Those games come in September in the newly introduced Nations League in which Scotland face Albania - for the first time - and Israel, home and away, the first steps towards, hopefully Euro 2020.
Before then McLeish will have tomorrow night’s match against Hungary in Budapest, the summer friendlies in Mexico and Peru and a visit from Belgium in which to make his mind up as to which players - with more new caps undoubtedly going to be won - he can trust to deliver.
Ritchie said: “The reason we have these friendlies is to prepare and get to know each other.
“In international football you have to adapt and do that quickly. In the second half against Costa Rica there were some real positives, we had a couple of chances and the result could have been very different. Hopefully we can take that forward and keep improving.”
Having won all his previous caps under McLeish’s predecessor, his former Aberdeen and Scotland team-mate Gordon Strachan, Ritchie was loathe to draw comparisons - or differences - between them.
The 28-year-old said: “They are two different managers with different ideas but it is certainly a very positive camp, hopefully it can continue to be that and we can carry that and be successful in the campaign.”
McLeish had also talked of his side having a winning mentality, of wanting to forge a team which could restore the nation’s fervour for those donning a dark blue jersey, and Ritchie, who forced Costa Rica’s Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas into an impressive save, said: “We want to win games, every game whether it’s in training or whatever. You want to win.”
Having seen Scott McKenna, Scott McTominay, Kevin McDonald and Oli McBurnie win their first caps from the start, Jamie Murphy, pictured, became the fifth to do so when he stepped from the bench to replace Ritchie for the final few minutes, a moment which the player insisted vindicated his decision to leave English Premiership outfit Brighton to return north of the border on loan with Rangers.
The 28-year-old, who was in two Scotland squads under Strachan but never called upon, said: “It’s something I’ve always worked hard for. I feel like I have been capable of playing for the national team for a couple of years, I’ve just never had the opportunity.
“The last few months at Brighton were disappointing, not playing and not making squads. Three months ago I was playing in an Under-23s match at Fulham’s training ground on a Friday night so I am just delighted.
“It’s been hard not playing football, I’ve been playing first-team football since the age of 17 or 18. It’s been disappointing but there’s nothing you can do about it.
“I knew I had to move to get regular football and now I can see light at the end of the tunnel.”