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UEFA Nations League - Why Scotland need to take this seriously.

Look past the surface, there are reasons to be optimistic about the Scottish national team.

It’s been an eventful week for the Scottish national team.

From first glance, it’s all doom and gloom. A majority of the press reacted with excruciating calls for change at the top, as the SFA’s number one target turned down the opportunity to replace Gordon Strachan. On top of that, there are reports of players being far from satisfied at the decision to play ‘International Challenge’ matches across the Atlantic during the summer months.

So, with the manager’s position still vacant, and some of the squads most prominent players voicing concern, you’d assume things are pretty low for the national team. Yet, the emergence of the UEFA Nations League and a subsequent positive draw for the Scots has sparked a glimpse of optimism the nation has yearned for.

Monday’s big story was that Michael O’Neill publicly stated his decision to snub a lucrative offer from the SFA, and instead remain with Northern Ireland. Unsurprisingly, it was met with dismay from up and down the country. O’Neill had been the number one candidate since Strachan’s dismissal in October, and it shouldn’t have taken until January to open official talks with the Irishman. Angry supporters and bemused journalists have voiced their concern over the SFA’s prolonged search for Strachan successor – and rightly so. Despite the lack of fixtures, 14 weeks without any indication of progress is poor at best. Scottish football fans enjoy a far from fruitful relationship with their governing body. From ticket prices, to managerial decisions – shambles and SFA are synonymous at the minute.

In fairness, there is a lack of genuine exciting candidates for Chief Exec Stewart Regan to consider. From Klinsmann to Bilic, or McInnes to Clarke; there is no standout name. The former duo are unrealistic financially, if not at least down to a lack of interest. Whilst the latter couple are enjoying successful campaigns at their respective Scottish Premiership clubs, and are unlikely to feel as if the job is suitable at this stage in their careers. It really is a troubling situation.

A number of journalists have urged the SFA to think outside the box and look to foreign coaches, who will differ from the unsuccessful approach adopted by the Scotland managers of the last decade. Strachan has even offered his tuppence worth, suggesting he would like his replacement to be a Scotsman. Then there has been the public plea from former internationals Gary Caldwell and Ally McCoist, who have both stated their interest in the job. Both suggestions should frankly be laughed out the door.

Furthermore, the SFA have this week been presented with concerns from a number of their players – namely, captain Scott Brown. Brown and his Celtic team-mates have voiced their displeasure over the prospect of cross-Atlantic friendlies in early June; away to both Mexico and Peru. There has been a suggestion in the press of a boycott from the Celtic contingent, with congestion ahead of European qualifiers their main issue. The friendlies have been dubbed as warm ups for the UEFA Nations League, however many Scottish fans have perceived it as a money-spinner. Regardless, you’d hope that there would be a new manager in place by then, whether the games go ahead or not.

The UEFA Nations League offers an interesting opportunity for the national side, and one this writer believes will be crucial to the development of the side. UEFA’s new proposition has been introduced to incentivize competition outwith major tournaments and traditional qualifiers, effectively replacing friendlies. Scotland have been paired with Israel and Albania in their group, as part of the third of four ‘league’ tiers. They will play both teams home and away across autumn 2018, and their results will determine their rankings and seeding ahead of EURO 2020 qualifiers, which start in March 2019. In truth, Scotland should be expecting to progress as group winners ahead of the two teams mentioned. Doing so, would promote them to tier 2 (B) and also earn them a semifinal play-off against one of the other three group winners, with a place at EURO 2020 at stake. In theory, earning a play-off place would positon Scotland closer to a place at a major tournament than any of the 18 years previous. Of course, they could still qualify traditionally, in one of the top two places of the ten qualifying groups. However, with double the amount of opportunities now available for the Scottish national team, there is reason to be optimistic ahead of 2020.

Another reason to be positive is the growing number of fantastic young players available for selection. With an ageing squad, and all too familiar faces, the new manager must look to freshen up the team and thankfully there are plenty options at his dispense. Firstly, the national side has had a glaring issue at centre half for far too long. It was a topic of discussion that dominated their last qualifying campaign, as numerous British based defenders struggled to hold down a central berth. However, the 2017/18 season has seen the emergence of a number of exciting prospects at the back.

Rangers’ Ross McCrorie, 19, and Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna, 21, have both cemented a spot in their respective sides this season, whilst Barnsley’s Liam Lindsay has been stand out in the English Championship since arriving from Partick Thistle and has been subject of a rumoured £6m move to Brighton. Dundee’s Jack Hendry has attracted interest from both north and south of the border, and Hearts’ John Souttar has formed Europe’s meanest defence alongside already established international Christophe Berra, so far this season. Berra, 33, and Souttar, 21, have notched up eight consecutive clean sheets since December and have broken a club record in the process. Whilst Berra is being tipped as a POTY nominee in Scotland, Souttar has yet to earn his first cap, and there has been plenty discussion on whether their successful partnership could be transferred to the international stage.

With the issues at the centre of defence slowly being addressed, they will help compliment some of the UK’s most exciting talents at full back. Celtic’s Kieran Tierney and Liverpool’s Andy Robertson are arguably the nation’s most talented players, yet unfortunately for Scotland they both fill the same position at left back. On the other side, Cardiff City’s Callum Paterson has enjoyed a successful start to his career in Wales. The former Hearts man has scored 4 in 15 appearances, and has occupied various positions across the park as his side push for Premier League promotion. There is also the emergence of talent up top with Oliver McBurnie forcing his way in to the Swansea team with starts at Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as Bournemouth winger Ryan Fraser making himself indispensable to Eddie Howe’s side.

Of course, not all of these players will break in to the Scotland side, and certainly not all at once. However, with club managers entrusting these players with crucial roles - in not only Scottish Premiership, but English Premier League too – there are indications that there is clear talent available for the next Scotland manager, and the Nations League is a perfect opportunity to test them. There are important decisions to be made, to say the very least, but not all is as bad as it seems. With selection issues dwindling, can the next crop of Scottish stars help the likes of Griffiths, Brown and Snodgrass reach EURO 2020?

In true Rabbie Burns’s spirit; “There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing.”

By Lewis McKenzie

26/01/2018