Two goalkeepers born and raised in Edinburgh are the focus of attention in Glasgow over the next few days.
Scotland manager Alex McLeish will play Allan McGregor or Craig Gordon against Belgium tonight and the other against Albania on Monday. He is waiting to choose who should be No.1 going forward.
McLeish admits the decision is difficult, vexing even, as he tries to split the Rangers goalkeeper and his Celtic counterpart. Both are in their mid-30s, representing Scotland’s biggest two clubs and are in good form. The national coach is wary of making a hasty decision so will not commit to a long-term incumbent just yet.
However, McGregor and Gordon can help persuade him with their performances. One will guard the net in tonight’s friendly and the other in the inaugural UEFA Nations League tie on Monday. Perhaps the picture will be clearer thereafter.
“It is a tough decision but I’m in cahoots with Stevie Woods, the goalie coach. He is very fair with the two experienced goalies and Jordan Archer as well,” explained McLeish. “Stevie and I had big discussions a couple of weeks ago before the squad assembled about how we play this.
“It’s difficult when you’ve got two goalies of a tremendous level. England had that problem way back in the day with Shilton and Clemence and it was one [game] each. There were eras where it worked out for the coach. I don’t want to lose any of our keepers and have the ideal solution. I want these two guys to be around for as long as possible. For these two games, we have an amicable agreement.”
Former pupils at Forrester and Balerno high schools respectively, McGregor and Gordon must use their opportunity over the next few days to stake their claim for the position.
“We will wait to see how the games go and see what suits the style of play we have in a game,” said McLeish. “If somebody has 40 world-class saves against Belgium then he might have nailed his position. It’s a very difficult decision. It’s so difficult for me to say that, ongoing, I can definitely pick one above the other.”
Clearly, McLeish is caught in the first major dilemma of his second tenure with the Scottish Football Association. He must also decide who forms a new-look midfield for Monday, the first competitive match of this reign.
Scott Brown has retired, Darren Fletcher isn’t selected and James McArthur is on a temporary self-imposed sabbatical from international duty due to a niggling back problem. John McGinn, Ryan Jack and Scott McTominay are three of the new generation jostling for position, although McGinn is certain to start regularly in McLeish’s Scotland side.
One issue the manager has nailed is the captaincy. Liverpool’s Andy Robertson will be Scotland’s on-field leader for the foreseeable future.
Like everybody else, McLeish admired Robertson’s resilience to reach the pinnacle of club football and play in this year’s Champions League final despite being released by Celtic for being too small. For all the modern science and technology engulfing football, the national coach loves the romance of a defiant late developer. He was one himself.
“Listen, we’ve had to try to keep up with the changes in the game, the academies and so on. The Germans have had total domination over the Bundesliga to get the international team correct. It’s not quite like that in other countries but there is a good system in there.
“We have got a lot of good young players coming through. Can they develop? That’s the next stage. Are they going to grow? Billy Gilmour is doing fantastic things with the Scotland Under-21s – in Toulon and down at Chelsea – playing at great levels. But I still believe in late developers. I really do.
“Andy Robertson has flown the flag for these guys. I think back to my own days. All my pals at Glasgow United were getting S-forms for Rangers and Celtic and I was thinking: ‘Why am I getting overlooked?’ I played in midfield at the time but I took a real stretch around 16 and 17 and I moved to centre-half to great success.
“Then all of a sudden I was getting invited everywhere. I thought: ‘Thank God I didn’t give up.’ You have to encourage them to hang in there.
“If you have to drop to another level to get better, then it can happen for you. Scott McTominay, look at him. He was quite strong at Man United when he went in there as a young kid and they held on to him, held on to him, held on to him, and thought there was something there. All of a sudden, he sprouted five or six inches and now he’s making his way in the game. He’s very worthy of a squad selection.”
Another choice McLeish settled on early was his formation. He used a back three in his first four friendlies with Scotland and will do so again. That allows him to accommodate Robertson and Celtic’s Kieran Tierney, who both play left-back at club level. Tierney will play on the left of the defence with Robertson at wing-back.
“I don’t think I can get it right for every single player, but we believe that can be a strong position for us. That [three a the back] is in my head but we’re not averse to changing it to four at any given moment. We will be looking at different players for the two games.
“The Nations League is the most important game for us. The two of them are very important. We want to show a good performance level against Belgium, want to show we have the legs to match them and the skills to hurt them going into the Nations League match, which is competition time.”