The Hearts and Hibs players who could expect a Scotland squad call-up later this month
With the season rumbling on into March it means we’re getting close to the return of international football with qualifiers for the next European Championships beginning at the end of this month.
Steve Clarke’s side have two home games coming up, beginning with a very winnable contest against Cyprus before getting one of the tougher tests world football has to offer with Spain travelling to Hampden Park.
When we last saw Scotland in competitive action things were beginning to look rosey again following the crushing disappointment of missing out on the World Cup. Ukraine, who killed off our chances of going to Qatar, were put to the sword as the Nations League got back underway in the autumn. That was then followed by a come-from-behind win over Ireland before a 0-0 draw away to Ukraine meant we topped the group and ensured a back-up route to Germany 2024 should the team once again fail to finish in the automatic qualification spots.
As people often say, a week is a long time in football. Therefore, six months is almost an eternity. At the time of writing, many of Scotland’s star players from the last couple of years are either out of form or not getting a game for their clubs.
It gives Clarke something of a headache when he comes to select his squad, which is expected to happen within the next fortnight. However, it also opens the door for fringe players who are in form to stake a claim, and there’s a few familiar faces on both sides of the Edinburgh divide who will be eagerly awaiting news of the squad dropping.
Lawrence Shankland versus Kevin Nisbet has been a popular debate around the capital after the latter returned from a long-term knee injury and immediately started banging in the goals. If there is only space for one of them in Clarke’s squad then which one should it be? Nisbet has the better goals-to-game ratio this campaign – albeit with a rather small nine-game sample size – but Shankland arguably does more for his team outside the area, linking play and closing down opposition defenders. Both have been picked by Clarke in the past, each receiving their international debuts from the former Kilmarnock boss, so there’s no real advantage for either one in that regard.
It may end being a pointless debate as, looking round the rest of the forward options, both could well be called up. Ross Stewart looked like he was going to elevate himself into the third-choice striker position behind Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes, but the Sunderland hitman will now miss the rest of the season after injuring his Achilles. There are also concerns over Dykes, who hasn’t played since being admitted to hospital with illness in January. Jacob Brown has been a staple of squads over the past couple of years but rarely ever gets a chance to play. Perhaps Clarke was continuing to select Brown while waiting on another forward to come back to form – and now he has two.
At the goalkeeper position it looks certain that Zander Clark is going to take Craig Gordon’s place in the squad after the latter’s season-ending injury. And unless Angus Gunn is convinced to change his allegiances from England to the country of his father, Clark should be the man taking Gordon’s spot in the starting XI as well. Liam Kelly isn’t playing well for Motherwell, Jon McLaughlin has failed to fully win the starting job at Rangers over a 41-year-old Allan McGregor, and Robby McCrorie has sat on the bench or in the stands all season.
Tynecastle favourite Stephen Kingsley got his second ever appearance for Scotland in the last competitive outing, coming on as a substitute away to Ukraine. The 28-year-old hasn’t hit the heights of last term, plus his inclusion for the game in Krakow was partially aided by Scotland suffering a bit of an injury crisis in the back line. As things stand at the moment, Andrew Robertson, Kieran Tierney, Aaron Hickey and Greg Taylor are all fit and can play on the left side of defence, as can Liam Cooper, Scott McKenna and ex-Hibee Josh Doig, who is continuing to impress in Serie A with Verona. It’s going to be very tough for Kingsley to break back in.
The same goes for Barrie McKay who, frankly, isn’t in the kind of form that would move Clark to include him in the international set-up at this moment in time.
Josh Campbell was touted for a call-up in the near future by Hibs boss Lee Johnson. It’s a suggestion that would have seemed mad at the beginning of this campaign, but the attacking midfielder has netted eight goals this season and has emerged as a real talismanic figure for the Hibees of late. If he can continually break into double figures in terms of goals then it’s highly likely he’ll earn a Scotland call-up one day. But when you consider Lewis Ferguson, currently lighting it up in Italian football with Bologna, has only got five international caps to this point then it underlines the quality Scotland still possess at the midfield position. Campbell will have to be patient for his turn, if it ever arrives.
It will be interesting to see if Ryan Porteous keeps his place in the squad. The centre-back moved from Hibs to Watford in the January window and has impressed so far for the Championship club. He made headlines for all the right reasons with his man-of-the-match performance in the 0-0 draw with Ukraine so it would certainly be harsh to leave him out entirely. But, like Kingsley, his initial selection came about due to injury issues in defence. Clarke has often been loyal to the players he's used in the past and this ‘club-mentality’ approach could see Porteous waiting a little longer for his next appearance.