by Ewan McQueen  

Scotland can relax – Steven Fletcher is back

A huge sigh of relief was let out across Scotland this morning when the shock news came through that Steven Fletcher had finally returned to the national squad.

Fletcher has been left out of the Scotland squad since the Sunderland striker sent manager Craig Levein a text in February 2011 saying he didn’t wish to be selected for the team.

This came after Fletcher had criticised Levein’s tactics in the now infamous game against Czech Republic the previous October in which Scotland lined up in 4-6-0 formation.

So why the huge sigh of relief amongst the Tartan Army today? There are a number of reasons.

Many initially criticised Fletcher for his decision, in particular the fact that he sent a text to Levein which seemed rather immature. Indeed, many still struggle to forgive him.

However, for the vast majority of the Tartan Army, it was a case of shouting from the rooftops for Fletcher’s return as he scored regularly in the English Premier League for a doomed Wolves side in the last couple of years and now Sunderland, for whom he is the player to have scored in the league so far this season.

To most, it seemed nonsensical that Levein was refusing to budge on the issue when Scotland were crying out for a top striker to help them qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 1998.

Levein’s competitive record as Scotland manager has done nothing to lift the spirit of a nation which is desperate to return to fighting on the big stage. He has only managed three wins in ten games, two of which came against Liechtenstein and the other against Lithuania, whom no one in their right minds would refer to as ‘footballing powerhouses’.

Expectations were high heading into the current World Cup qualifying campaign as Scotland were dealt a more manageable group compared to those of more recent tournaments. But Levein’s side kicked-off their journey to Brazil with two very disappointing home draws against Serbia and Macedonia, putting their qualification hopes in jeopardy.

Many lambasted Levein for his negativity and felt that Fletcher, who had already scored two in the Premier League for Sunderland since joining for £12 million would have had the talent to unlock the Serbian and Macedonian defences.

Fletcher is a man who has regularly scored in one of the world’s best leagues since joining Burnley in 2009 from Hibs.

In Burnley’s one-season stay in the top flight, he managed eight goals in 35 appearances – a very respectable total for a team that was ultimately relegated. He managed to continue this fine form at Wolves over the course of the next two seasons scoring 22 goals in 61 games for the Molineux side. Many of his goals came against some of the league’s top defences, such as Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Newcastle last season. The 25-year-old’s great goal scoring record earned him a move to Sunderland where he has started the season in blistering form. He netted two against Swansea before scoring in his next three matches against West Ham, Liverpool and Wigan as he took on the responsibility of being Sunderland’s main goalscorer on his shoulders with aplomb.

It shows that, when a manager of the experience and class that Martin O’Neill is entrusting you to score week in week out for you, then something must be seriously wrong with the relationship between the star striker and Levein.

Only the Scotland national team would be in a situation where a striker that has just been transferred for £12m this season wouldn’t be one of the first names on the teamsheet.

Levein is the only man whoknows why he selected Kenny Miller, who now plays in the MLS and has only scored three goals this season ahead of Fletcher.

In terms of shots that ended up as goals in the top five European leagues last season, only Lionel Messi outperformed Fletcher. Out of 71 shots for Wolves, 12 hit the back of the net.

One cannot expect an entire nation to rely on one man to ensure World Cup qualification, but there can be no doubting that Scotland are a better team with Fletcher available. He has a fantastic physical presence, standing at 6ft1 and has a knack for always being in the right place at the right time in the box to score, two key aspects of any strikers game which Kenny Miller struggles to offer these days.

In a few years’ time, Scotland’s attack will perhaps be spearheaded by Jordan Rhodes who scored an incredible 47 goals last season. Right now though, with Scotland’s lack of a natural, established goalscorer, it makes sense that he starts against Wales in ten days’ time, either on his own or alongside someone else.

It may have taken Levein too long to welcome Fletcher back into his squad.

For Scotland’s chances of making it to Brazil in 2014, here’s hoping it hasn’t be too little too late.