Monday 9 December 2019

Scotland match will be a club game in national jerseys

Expect frantic Championship-style clash between similar sides of solid pros who know each other well

Stephen Ward speaks to the media
Stephen Ward speaks to the media
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Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

STEPHEN WARD cuts to the chase when discussing the personality of tomorrow's encounter in Glasgow.

"It could be more like an English league game than an international one," smiles the Burnley full-back before predicting a fast and frantic affair.

The point has been made more than once this week and, while comparisons can be flawed, it seems fair to suggest that this fixture could be closer to lower-half Premier League fare or a Championship promotion face-off than a meeting of the creme de la creme.

Certainly, browsing where the protagonists earn their corn backs up that school of thought.

The 1987 European Championship qualifier at Hampden Park was peppered with characters from England's biggest clubs and high-level Euro competition.

But for this renewal of rivalries, there are no players in contention who have seen action in the Champions League group stages this term. Celtic play in a vastly inferior league but their decline and asset stripping has prevented their contingent from altering that statistic.

Darren Fletcher, the luckless Manchester United midfielder, has lived in elite company but a desperately unfortunate illness has curtailed the career of a talented individual with family connections that could have set him down the Irish path. He may not figure tomorrow.

In terms of club stock, the Everton contingent will be the most accomplished performers available on show, with O'Neill able to call on Seamus Coleman, Aiden McGeady, Darron Gibson and, hopefully, James McCarthy, while Steven Naismith has improved to become a major player for Gordon Strachan.

Money

Beyond that, this is a tale of solid pros who earn their money in places like Hull, Burnley, Wigan, Stoke, Derby and Brighton.

They know each other well from scraps over the years, or soldiering together in club colours. It makes it different from a run-of-the-mill international week where there is frequently an unknown element surrounding the opposition. They are faces from DVDs and preparation work. Not mates.

"We know the players and their personalities," said Ward, before adding a cautionary point. "When they meet up with Scotland, they could be asked to play a different way, a different system. We've already looked into them. Last night (Tuesday), we had a good meeting and we'll do the same again."

Yet when it came to his old Wolves team-mate Steven Fletcher, the Portmarnock lad conceded there was little he could learn.

"I know him inside out," he responded, grinning again. "I've been chatting to him and know he's looking forward to the game.

"He's very good, he can do both - he's well known for his aerial power in the box but he's good with his feet as well.

"But as much as we know them inside out" he continued. "We have to concentrate on ourselves and get a good start to the campaign.

"I speak to Steven often, he's a good pal of mine and I'm sure it will be back and forth during the week and then on Friday shut off for the 90 minutes."

There are numerous other stories and alliances within the two dressing-rooms, extending to the managers.

For example, Gordon Strachan was a big part of Robbie Keane's formative years. Likewise, Martin O'Neill with Shaun Maloney, a player he nurtured at Celtic and then brought to Aston Villa albeit unsuccessfully.

"He was a bit homesick," he said yesterday, "But Shaun has great talent."

The recurring theme here is that these faces have pretty much operated at the same level for the majority of their respective journeys, which is why a strikingly confident Scottish piece in the Daily Record earlier this week succeeding in causing a stir.

"Quite simply, today's Scotland has better players almost right across the board," wrote columnist Keith Jackson, "Only three or four of O'Neill's squad would get anywhere near Scotland's starting 11 - the big, fat irony being that two of them were born in this country. But after Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy the Irish are a fairly ordinary bunch.

"Everton's Seamus Coleman would be allowed in definitely. John O'Shea, perhaps. O'Neill's keeper is Millwall's David Forde. With David Marshall, Allan McGregor, Craig Gordon and Matt Gilks around, Forde wouldn't get to carry Scotland's hampers.

"But it'll be the same story all over the park. In almost every position, Scotland's players will come up against technically inferior opponents."

If Forde, who has impressed in both Georgia and Germany, needs extra motivation, the dangerously optimistic prediction should provide it. But, if anything, all that viewpoint emphasised is that both nations perhaps have a tendency to view their own players in a more flattering light than outsiders - believing they are capable of better than their CVs suggest.

Strachan's squad has a greater representation of Championship performers than the visiting panel and their starting centre-halves - two from Gordon Greer, Grant Hanley and Russell Martin - will mean little or nothing to Irish followers, although O'Shea's likely partner Richard Keogh is hardly a household name in Glasgow.

What the Tartan Army do have is an abundance of assured midfield operators - Charlie Adam can't get in the squad - but if O'Neill has a fit McCarthy in his armoury, then the best player in that position on the park will be wearing green. Coleman, meanwhile, is one of the global game's leading lights in his station, something which cannot be said about any Scot.

These are angles of attack which can be pursued to make a strong argument for Irish ascendancy. But the margins are small with counterpoints aplenty.

In sporting parlance, a common cliche is that it's irrelevant which squad is better on paper.

Aiden McGeady indicated last night that the neighbours were almost a carbon copy of each other

"It's two good teams, probably quite similar in terms of where we are the minute in terms of progress and development," he said. "Quite similarly matched, most players in England, similar ages, similar levels."

The fact that it's pretty difficult to agree which teamsheet looks more attractive illustrates the extent to which this simply comes down to who makes the right decisions and applies themselves better on the night.

That's what happens when two teams have so much in common.

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