The European Championships are drawing ever closer and, after Scotland manager Steve Clarke’s much anticipated latest squad announcement, it’s looking like there will be no current Dundee United or St Johnstone players at the summer finals.
Three Saints Betfred Cup winners in with a chance of selection for this month’s World Cup qualifying triple-header have been overlooked, as has the Tangerines striker who played a part in getting the nation to its first finals in over two decades.
Eric Nicolson assesses the reasons Lawrence Shankland, Jason Kerr, Shaun Rooney and Zander Clark haven’t been picked for the matches against Austria, Israel and the Faroe Islands and whether they should be feeling hard done by.
Also on the ‘close but no cigar’ list of local heroes is former United wonder kid, Ryan Gauld, who is starring in Portugal’s Primeira Liga.
It wasn’t that long ago it felt as if Shankland was competing with Leigh Griffiths for a place at the Euros. Now both of Scotland’s most natural penalty box predators have been dropped.
The timing will come as a huge blow to the United star given he’s actually playing better than when he was last selected – or perhaps more pertinently, Micky Mellon’s team is set-up to allow him to play better.
It will sting that there are other Scotland attackers who aren’t scoring for their clubs but have been retained.
Clarke has made it clear that he feels attack is the part of his side where there is greatest room for improvement.
Shankland doesn’t have the all-round skillset to rival an English Premiership forward like Che Adams and the Kevin Nisbet selection will have been made to get a close-up look at a promising young Scottish-based striker with eye-catching numbers, just as Clarke did when he picked the United number nine, then just a Championship player.
It is now hard to escape the reality that Shankland will have to do something spectacular to be part of Euro 2020.
It’s even harder, however, to see how he is going to do that by playing against bottom six sides in the Premiership for the remainder of the league season.
“I won’t be getting a call-up because I always have a nightmare against Kilmarnock! I’ve been sent off twice and I was taken off in another game, so I don’t think Steve Clarke will be picking me on the back of what he’s seen against them. But hopefully he’s seen me playing well in other games too.”
That’s a quote from nearly two years ago, and Kerr was joking, but you do have to wonder if the St Johnstone captain is indeed suffering from perceptions formed by Clarke in his time as a Premiership club manager.
Kerr’s form dipped in December after he picked up a back injury and his red card against St Mirren was his season’s low point but, other than that, he has been a consistently high-level performer in 2020/21.
There have been many reasons Saints’ results improved after the turn of the calendar year but at the top of that list should be the skipper’s return to the team following his coronavirus lay-off and the impact that had on others around him.
Kerr has reined in his natural instincts to step into midfield, choosing his over-lapping and under-lapping centre-half moments judiciously. Most importantly, he has been the leader and positionally-astute presence Callum Davidson needed – never more so than when it was all about headers, blocks and interceptions in the Betfred Cup final.
Unlike other young and Scottish Saints defenders, Kerr has international pedigree with the under-21s that you would have hoped might have helped his case. And he plays his club football in a backline formation the Scotland boss has been using.
The Scott McTominay right-sided centre-half gamble paid off spectacularly for Clarke in the Euro 2020 play-offs.
Clarke has talked about moving him back into central midfield, where he is now a regular starter for Manchester United, but Grant Hanley and Jack Hendry have been preferred as the potential replacement if that happens.
Hanley may be more physically imposing than him and Hendry may be his equal in terms of distribution but Kerr is a more complete player than both and his week in, week out excellence for Saints deserved to be rewarded at this stage in his career.
There hasn’t been a feelgood Scottish football story like it this season.
The man who couldn’t get in the St Johnstone starting line-up until Danny McNamara returned to Millwall has become the Perth side’s most potent attacking weapon in what feels like next to no time.
Scoring in the quarter-final, the semi-final and then the final of the Betfred Cup has turned the right wing-back into a McDiarmid Park legend.
Many other Scottish footballers down the years – and many others playing for different clubs – have been called up for far less. Rooney is certainly entitled to look at Stephen O’Donnell and think: “I’m playing much better than you’.
He probably isn’t ready to start a match for Scotland in important World Cup qualifiers but he would be the perfect last 10 minutes option to throw on if Clarke’s men were chasing a late equaliser or winner.
There’s a comparison to be made with a young Callum Paterson.
Combine Rooney’s long-throw, his power and direct running, his aerial threat at the back post from open-play and at the front post from set-pieces and you have a perfect game-changer in waiting.
Rooney can create chaos and thrive in the middle of it.
Third choice goalkeeper is probably the least important selection a national coach has to make.
Unless it’s a meaningless friendly, how often does one play? Not very is the answer.
As such, it’s the position that will provoke the least fury in Tartan Army debates.
But try telling that to Clark.
He saw a keeper who now can’t hold down his status as Dundee number one getting chosen in front of him a few years ago, then a keeper who is in and out for Livingston these days and was at fault for the only goal in the Betfred Cup final and, for this squad, a keeper who last played for Rangers in the league at the start of November.
Tales won’t be passed down the generations of Clark’s Hampden heroics but it should never be forgotten that he played a pivotal role in getting Saints through a pretty testing first half-hour against Hibs in the semi-final while others around him were struggling and was a picture of concentration and composure, in contrast to his opposite number, when the trophy was won.
In the event of a crisis whereby both David Marshall and Craig Gordon get injured, a Premiership regular in the form of his life would be more reliable than one who has had his slippers on for nearly five months.
When Scotland qualified for the Euros the bar appeared very high for an attacking/creative midfielder hoping to break into the squad when next there was one announced.
If a regular in the English Premiership like Stuart Armstrong couldn’t get a start, what hope was there that Clarke would look to bring in anyone new?
The number 10-types who Gauld is in direct competition with are Ryan Christie, who was at the top of his game in the play-offs and scored in the final against Serbia, and John Fleck, one of the stars of a recently-promoted Sheffield United team.
Christie’s form drop hasn’t been as marked as Fleck’s but neither are the player they were back in November.
Gauld, on the other hand, has found the consistency he previously lacked and his numbers are weighty. Seven goals (one of them voted the best in Portugal for February) and four assists represents excellent work in a Farense side destined to either be relegated or very close to it.
Ryan Gauld has won the Primeira Liga Goal of the Month award for February for this stunning flick against Santa Clara. Does ‘Mini Messi’ deserve a place in Steve Clarke’s Scotland squad for the upcoming European Championships?🇵🇹🏴 | #DUFC pic.twitter.com/fsS5c8a1ZU
— OurDUFC (@OurDUFC) March 11, 2021
The fact that Gauld got a name-check by Clarke in his media duties should soften the blow a bit. But when you consider that Fleck hasn’t actually played very well for Scotland when he has been given a start and his club performances have dipped significantly, this feels like an opportunity missed and an example of the scales tipping too far in favour of loyalty.