With Scotland preparing for a crunch tie qualification with Albania in the Nations League – a phrase that coveys senses of both hope in that Scotland can still achieve something, but also dismay that this achievement would be in the third rung of European football – the squad has been decimated by a large number of calls offs and withdrawals.
On Thursday 15 November, John McGinn became the latest drop out following others including Charlie Mulgrew, Craig Gordon, Kevin McDonald, Michael Devlin and John McLaughlin. Even some of the replacements have since pulled out, like Ryan Jack who was called in late, but subsequently withdrew from the squad after “picking up an injury in training”. This reason, has been well used over the past week, a number of players have left the squad after “knocks” have been picked up – a ongoing hazard clearly but also a worrying trend
Now, this is clearly football jargon, a cover all phrase to explain that the player is not, or doesn’t feel as if he is, or indeed the medical staff don’t feel he is fit to play. However, with the lack of full explanations such as “he sprained his ankle really badly” or “he twisted his knee and needs a weeks rest before playing again” we can only speculate and wonder about the extent of these injuries.
There is no suggestion of injuries being feigned or milked, but it is a concerning trend that so many injuries have been picked up, so many knocks in training and seemingly so many knocks which cannot be patched up, where painkillers or Deep Heat cannot be applied to mitigate of cover the injury in order to allow the player to go and play. Having played football for a number of years – not at anywhere near this level of course – I know that you can pick up knocks in training, sore bits, weary muscles and yes there are some games which you feel that you are too sore or unfit to play fully in. But for most of my “career”, even though in pub leagues or youth teams, I turned up with something wrong with me, ankles the size of tennis balls or sore muscles or the like. But always, you could strap yourself up and put a shift in.
At a professional, or international professional level this issue will of course be amplified with scans, medical experts and detailed analysis being applied to ensure that players are fit enough but also that they can operate to a level befitting of the squad. A pub team player can whack on a bit of heat spray and go run about, it won’t diminish the performance levels to any great extent. This isn’t the same for top players where marginal gains are important, optimal performance is analysed and even a drop down to 95% performance in terms of sprints, movement or ability could be seriously detrimental to the overall performance. This is without considering any long term issues such as aggravating injuries which then impacts clubs who pay highly for these players and wish to protect their assets. So it is understood that there are a raft of legitimate considerations to be taken into account here and legitimate injury concerns which cannot be risked.
The status is however muddied by the former professionals who come out questioning the drop outs, offering their opinions and indeed saying that back in their day they were never “100% fit” and that they, just like the pub team players, would often strap up the ankle, spray a bit of stuff on the sore muscle and go and give their best. This then brings the question of desire, pride and actually wanting to be there back into the spotlight.
We have seen mass drop outs before, mainly for friendlies it must be said, but this is technically a competitive game – albeit some may still argue these are glorified friendlies – but I am still very concerned and dismayed whenever this happens. It occurred under previous Scotland managers, but usually when things were coming to an end, the relevant manager was on borrowed time or things were deteriorating to such an extent that there was clear discontent and even apathy amongst the parties involved. This time, we have a relatively fresh manager, lots of new players representing a fresh start to Scotland squads, lots of “public choice” players getting game time for high profile or consistent performances, so it is hard to fathom why the level of dedication seems to be waning.
Yes, injuries are in all probability completely genuine and having McGinn or Mulgrew limp off after 10 minutes is in nobody’s interest, but there is still an overriding feeling that these drop outs have been too frequent – can the training be that rough? Can the injuries really not be patched up? Or are these just excuses? Are the players looking for a way out as they perhaps don’t have confidence in getting a result? These are questions only those within the squad can answer.
The nuclear option is however that players are quickly losing that sense of pride often associated with the National Team. That blood and guts, national duty approach so often cited. Scotland have long since relied on pride, on heart, on passion to pull them through. If we are losing these aspects, this doesn’t bode well moving forward.