For a number of years now, encompassing World Cup and European Championship qualifying campaigns where Scotland have failed to qualify, much focus or source of worry for fans has been the lack of any top quality, reliable centre backs within the Scotland team and even the Scotland squad.
In the most recent qualifying campaign, Scotland’s preferred pairing at the beginning of the campaign consisted of Russell Martin and Grant Hanley (of Norwich City and Newcastle United respectively at the time). Both players had been regular squad members for a couple of campaigns and are relatively experienced at English Championship level. Martin started life as a right back in the lower leagues in England before working his way up the league pyramid via Wycombe Wanderers, Peterborough United and then Norwich where he even played at the top level in England. Clearly therefore Martin is a player with ability and the knowledge and understanding of the game to perform at international level at centre half, winning 29 caps at the time of writing. Hanley is also a defender with a lot of experience in the English leagues, amassing over 180 appearances at Blackburn Rovers before struggling for game time at a successful Newcastle side in 2016/17. At the time of writing Hanley has won 28 caps in his preferred centre half position – as with Martin, to play at this level there is a clear ability here.
The pairing of Hanley and Martin at centre half had worked to an extent, but Scotland did start the campaign poorly with a 1-1 home draw to Lithuania and a 3-0 pumping away to Slovakia exposing frailties at the back.
If we are brutally honest, while Martin and Hanley have served Scotland well, neither have ever seemed like long term options in that position. Martin has often seemed like a round peg in a square hole (or a square peg in a round hole) filling in until a better option is uncovered. While Hanley has never really established himself as a truly dependable and completely solid option in the position, with pace and issues with “clumsiness” letting him down. He’s not nicknamed “Bombscare Grant” in the Hampden stands for nothing after all.
After Slovakia, Scotland then proceeded to be pumped by England. Martin retained his place but Hanley was replaced as his defensive partner in this game by Cristophe Berra. A relative veteran with over 40 caps Berra had been performing solidly for Ipswich Town in the English Championship. Berra has been around the international set up for a number of years, yet has failed to become an established first choice. As above, a dependable and clearly capable centre half, as with Hanley a lack of real pace and tendency to be overly clumsy has meant that while a very good defender at club level, limitations are exposed at the highest level. The game at Wembley also showed Berra trying to play football, passing the ball out from the back but never convincing anyone that he was completely comfortable or in control on this occasion. The fact that goals conceded came from seemingly simple crosses was also a let down.
Following the game at Wembley, the tide turned slightly for Scotland with a home win (1-0) against Slovenia and a 2-2 draw at Hampden against England. Charlie Mulgrew came into the side against Slovenia, replacing Berra and playing with Martin, before Berra then replaced Martin to combine with Mulgrew in the England game. Charlie Mulgrew, with over 30 caps is also experienced, albeit as per the players above has never managed to establish himself as a guaranteed starter for the National team. This is perhaps due to Mulgrew’s versatility, starting life as a left back but also playing (successfully it has to be said) for Scotland as a defensive midfielder and then as per this article, a centre half. Again though, while a good player with clear ability Mulgrew does not seem like a long term solution at centre half – having said that himself and Berra were relatively successful as a partnership towards the end of the campaign. There is also the fact that with Scotland playing with Andy Robertson at left back, Kieran Tierney at right back then Mulgrew in the centre for a couple of games, technically the back four was made up of 3 left backs – notwithstanding any relative success there that just sounds wrong!!
Ahead of the next qualifying campaign therefore, Scotland are still struggling to find an established, reliable and agreeable centre half pairing. Clearly while there are players who can do a job there, a dominant pairing or even dominant centre half is still lacking. So where should the next Scotland manager look to find this given the importance of this position?
A brief look through the previous squads does not provide a lot in terms of inspiration. Players such as Mark Reynolds (Aberdeen) and Liam Cooper (Leeds United) have been in a number of squads, yet neither have managed to make any recognisable impact in terms of game time. Indeed looking through recent line ups and squad lists from the Scottish Premiership, very few teams have Scottish centre halves regularly playing and even fewer have any playing who have any semblance of international experience. Christophe Berra (now at Hearts) represents the most capped option while Danny Wilson (Rangers) hasn’t added to his 5 caps for a number of years after a lot of early hope and promise. John Souttar is another young player who showed a lot of early promise, but despite being a regular at Scottish Premiership level for a few years now, has failed to progress from U21 international football up to the full team. In terms of U21 players, Scott McKenna (Aberdeen) and Ross McCrorie (Rangers) have shown promise in a handful of performances in their club first teams, but it remains to be seen if this can be translated into consistency or reliability – as has been seen with Wilson and Souttar this is far from guaranteed.
Elsewhere in Scotland there are only solid, but uncapped and untested centre halves, aside from Gordon Greer or Kirk Broadfoot (both Kilmarnock), but both are old and have never offered any convincing argument for inclusion, Broadfoot in fact was a source of much derision from the stands at Scotland games and was widely seen as an illustration of how bad things had gotten when he played. It is a similar story in the English leagues where Scottish players may show promise but remain unproven at the top level.
There does not therefore seem to be an obvious or entirely desirable solution. Do Scotland continue to try to fit square pegs into round holes and just work through the problem, hoping that the lack of natural or really gifted or dominant centre halves can be left unexposed by a combination of teamwork, luck and a good old bit of fight and passion? Or is there a chance for a risk, take potential and run with it, knowing that mistakes will be made but that they are part of a longer learning curve and since qualification doesn’t happen with the “safer” route then there is not a great deal to lose by taking a risk. This is quite a challenge for the lucky individual who takes over the National job (at the time of writing still unfilled).
Personally, I would like to see the riskier second option progressed. I want Scotland to win, but I have also been attending games for long enough to appreciate that not qualifying one more time for the chance of players, partnerships and potential developing may serve the team better in the longer run. Maybe not though – this is Scotland and it is in our DNA to excel in glorious failure.
There is also a large issue of where the young up and coming centre halves are, why are Scotland not producing these types of players. A modern centre half has to be big, strong and fast to deal with the pace and physicality of the game. They need the footballing brain to read the attack and tackle, intercept or basically wipe out any danger. An ability to play out from the back, passing and becoming part of the attack is also seen as highly desirable. A lot to ask therefore for players who, traditionally in Scotland play at centre half because they are big brutes of players who are not technically gifted enough to play in a more attacking position. this is perhaps a wider issue with the Scottish youth system and the recruitment of players. Even if these players do exist, they may also be kept out of the first team by imported or ready made players – particularly given the longevity of centre halves (see Kilmarnock example above) and value on “experience” that so many coaches place on this position.
So there is a lot of progress to be made in this regard, but until this issue is fully addressed we may not see a completely solid and reliable Scotland team.