The international future of Steven Fletcher is a subject that seems to divide Scotland fans. On one hand he’s a player who publicly criticised his manager and exiled himself from the squad. On the other he is one of Scotland’s few players of genuine talent, and someone the side can scarcely do without as the struggle to qualify for a major tournament continues.
The problem began when Fletcher took umbrage at Craig Levein’s 4-6-0 formation against the Czech Republic in October 2010. Come to think of it, 4-6-0 might be a generous description of the way Scotland played that night in Prague. The entire side sat so deep that 4-6-0-0-0-0 might be somewhere nearer the truth.
A text message later and the Wolverhampton Wanderers’ striker’s Scotland career under Levein was effectively over. Since then Levein has been at pains to point out, as often as possible, that he is only interested in working with playing who want to play for Scotland and that it is Fletcher who has to make the first move, indicating a willingness to be involved before Levein will consider him for selection.
The column inches upon column inches that this impasse has spawned may, by some, be considered over the top for a player who has only eight caps and a solitary goal in international football, but the truth is that Fletcher has proven himself over the past three years to be one of Scotland’s most talented players. For a nation struggling to impose themselves, that is a hard thing to overlook.
A mere glance at Scotland’s striking options in the squad for the game against Slovenia illustrates the problem. Kenny Miller may have more international goals than the rest of his team mates combined, but at 32 he is surely entering the final qualification campaign of his career, and even he has never been what one might call prolific at the highest level. Craig Mackail-Smith scored plenty in League One, but has twice failed to match those heights when stepping up to the Championship, while Jamie Mackie and David Goodwillie have six goals in 34 appearances between them this season.
And this isn’t just a recent thing. Goalscoring has long been a problem for Scotland. In the 66 qualifying games they have played since they last appeared at a major tournament (France ’98), they have scored 85 goals (a rate of 1.29 per game). Their best performance came in the UEFA Euro 2008 qualifying campaign when they scored 21 in 12 games under Walter Smith and then Alex McLeish, a record which makes the nine goals in eight games as they tried to reach Poland and the Ukraine look positively anaemic.
To cast aside, in such a situation, a man who has scored 20 goals in 49 Premier League appearances for Wolves seems a case of principles getting in the way of success. Levein’s assertion that there must be one rule for all is admirable, but with Scotland struggling to find other such talent, surely there is a middle ground to be found in the best interests of the team.
The situation though, shows no sign of being resolved, and Scotland’s immediate future at least must be one planned without the presence of the former Hibernian man. The longer Levein and Fletcher go without speaking, the less likely it is that the latter will wear the shirt again while the former is still in charge. And while Fletcher continues to score goals for Wolves that will only increase the pressure on Levein.