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  • Writer's pictureGordon Sheach

A Central Issue

When Scotland take to the field against Israel in their Nation’s League Group B2 match in September, it will have been more than 9 months since the national team last played a match, their final Euro 2020 qualifier at home to Kazakhstan.

The Co-vid lockdown that postponed our Playoff Semi-Final (v Israel) and subsequently Euro 2020 has afforded Steve Clarke a lot of thinking time.

Of all the issues he will have spent the intervening months pondering, it is unlikely any will have given him as many headaches as the question:

‘Who should play Centre Back for Scotland?’

In Steve Clarke’s eight games in charge he’s tried six different players in five different combinations. Admittedly, some of this shuffling of combinations has been enforced due to injuries, although if he’s been trying to find the Cinderella's slipper of CB partners, the raw numbers of 16 goals conceded and one clean sheet (at home to San Marino) would imply he hasn't found it yet.

In this article, we wanted to dispassionately look at all the options available to Steve Clarke, to prompt debate and discussion.

Should Clarke decide now who his partnership is and aim to play them every game when fit? Gordon Strachan tried that with some success, pairing Russell Martin with Grant Hanley or Charlie Mulgrew more often than not.

When considering the options, where else to start but ‘The Incumbents’, those who have been capped by Steve Clarke to date:

The Incumbents – Capped by Steve Clarke

Scott McKenna (23, Aberdeen) Caps: 14 Last Cap: Scotland 3-1 Kazakhstan Nov ‘19 Notes: The big Aberdeen defender has started four of Steve Clarke’s eight games in charge, including the last two. He has had injury problems with his hamstrings. He looked set to leave Aberdeen last summer with interest from Queens Park Rangers and Nottingham Forest although he was reportedly left frustrated that the club’s £7m valuation wasn’t met.

He's profiled in this excellent video below from TwoPointOne.

Declan Gallagher (29, Motherwell) Caps: 2 Last Cap: Scotland 3-1 Kazakhstan Nov ‘19 Notes: The new captain of Motherwell was a late arrival into the international setup. Handed his debut by Steve Clarke last year in Cyprus, a position he retained for the final qualifier at home to Kazakhstan. Last season he played 36 games in all competitions for the Steelmen, scoring twice and providing three assists. He joined Motherwell from Livingston where he enjoyed promotion from League One all the way to the Premiership.

Stuart Findlay (24, Kilmarnock) Caps: 1 Last Cap: Scotland 6-0 San Marino Oct ‘19 Notes: Handed his debut in the home qualifier against San Marino, while he was relatively untested, he managed to get involved at the other end, scoring his first Scotland goal. The former Celtic & Newcastle United youth player joined Kilmarnock in 2017 and was a favourite of Steve Clarke, playing 123 games for the Rugby Park side.

Michael Devlin (26, Aberdeen) Caps: 3 Last Cap: Cyprus 1-2 Scotland Nov ‘19 Notes: Another centre back handed his debut by Steve Clarke, Devlin has been with Aberdeen since January 2018, joining from Hamilton Accies. He has been limited to 49 appearances for the Dons, missing 15 games in the 18/19 season and is currently missing with a hamstring injury.

Charlie Mulgrew (34, Blackburn Rovers) Caps: 44 Last Cap: Russia 4-0 Scotland Oct ‘19 Notes: Steve Clarke turned to the experienced campaigner early, starting him in his first five matches in charge. Mulgrew was on loan at Wigan Athletic last season as they were relegated after receiving a points deduction. He returns to Blackburn Rovers where he has one year remaining on his deal.

Liam Cooper (28, Leeds United) Caps: 44 Last Cap: Russia 4-0 Scotland Oct ‘19 Notes: A player who many in the Tartan Army were excited about for a long time, ill-timed injuries always seemed to prevent him being called up. He had ridden the bench for five Scotland games since 2016 before Steve Clarke gave him a debut against Russia at Hampden.

For anyone who has seen ‘Take us Home’ on Amazon Prime, the fly on the wall documentary into Leeds United’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt at getting promoted in the 2018/19 season, they’ll know just how highly he’s thought of at the club as captain. With Leeds reaching the promised land of promotion to the EPL, it will be exciting to see how Marcelo Bielsa’s side take to the division and whether Cooper will retain his leadership position.

The Recently Capped – before Steve Clarke

David Bates (23, Cercle Brugge, loan from Hamburg) Caps: 4 Last Cap: San Marino 0-2 Scotland Mar ‘19 Notes: There was a lot of excitement when Bates made the move from Rangers to Hamburg in Germany in the summer of 2018. While he made 25 league appearances in his first season in Bundesliga 2, he was sent to spend the 19/20 season on loan with Sheffield Wednesday where he only played once and was frozen out by Garry Monk. In recent days it was confirmed he would be joining Cercle Brugge in Belgium’s top flight, hopefully he can kick-start his career again there. In his four Scotland caps under Alex McLeish, he won three with the only loss coming in Astana in the opening Euro 2020 qualifier.

Jack Hendry (25, KV Oostende, loan from Celtic)

Caps: 3

Last Cap: Scotland 1-3 Portugal Oct ‘18

Notes: Like David Bates, Hendry will be plying his trade in the Belgian top flight this coming season. He too has struggled to establish himself since joining the other of Glasgow’s big two, making only 27 appearances for the Hoops since joining in January 2018.

He has since had a loan spell in Australia with Melbourne City that was sadly cut short after only two games when Hendry suffered a serious knee injury.

Handed his debut by Alex McLeish, he’s played in three friendlies for the national team.

John Souttar (23, Heart of Midlothian)

Caps: 3

Last Cap: Israel 2-1 Scotland Oct’ 18

Notes: Another centre back handed his debut by Alex McLeish, Souttar hasn’t pulled on the Dark Blue since being red carded in Scotland’s 2-1 Nation’s League defeat in Israel in October 2018.

It’s safe to say a lot was expected of Souttar when he burst onto the scene as Dundee United’s youngest ever player aged 16 years old, alongside the golden generation of Gauld, Robertson, Armstrong and Mackay-Steven.

Of those players, Souttar has had the worst luck with injuries, likely due to playing so much so young. He’s at Hearts now and is on the comeback trail from a bad achilles injury, hoping to be back in time for Hearts’ first game in the Championship.

Kieran Tierney (23, Arsenal)

Caps: 12

Last Cap: Israel 2-1 Scotland Oct’ 18

Notes: It’s been almost two years since Kieran Tierney pulled on a Scotland jersey, playing centre back as Scotland lost to Israel in the Nations League. Since then, he has moved to London, joining Arsenal in a £25m deal. He arrived in London carrying an injury with his debut not coming until October. He then suffered a freak injury in December against West Ham, dislocating his shoulder multiple times in one game, which ruled him out until lockdown.

Coming out of lockdown there was a lot of pressure on Tierney to grab the left back position with both hands ahead of the new season. He did just that, starting eight of Arsenal’s ten final league games, scoring his first goal for the club and starting every game in their run to winning the FA Cup, including the wins over Man City and Chelsea. Tierney has now unbelievably averaged a trophy every 19 games across his career.

Something that Tierney has clearly been working on under Mikel Arteta is his tactical flexibility. In the games post-restart, Tierney has performed admirably in a variety of tactical systems at left back, wing back and centre back.

Tierney’s performances have received rave reviews from fans of the North London club. This article from Arseblog details the tactical flexibility shown by Arsenal / Tierney in the FA Cup Final.

This tactical flexibility will be a great relief to Steve Clarke who will no doubt be pondering how to best fit Tierney into the same side as captain Andy Robertson.

Grant Hanley (28, Norwich City)

Caps: 30

Last Cap: Scotland 0-1 Costa Rica Mar’ 18

Notes: The Norwich City skipper is coming off a difficult season in the English Premier League. He started 14 league games owing to a combination of groin, hernia and hamstring issues. However, there was a lot of speculation Steve Clarke was set to include him in the Scotland squad for the Euro 2020 Playoff in March, so he is clearly in Clarke’s thoughts. He will hope to return to full fitness in time for Norwich to kick off their Championship campaign in September.

Still only 28, you would hope his peak years as a centre back are still to come. Handed a debut by Craig Levein, he was a regular under Gordon Strachan.

The Wild Cards – Uncapped / Untapped Options

Ryan Porteous (21, Hibernian)

Caps: 0 (11 for Scotland u21)

Notes: Porteous is very highly thought of at Hibs, having made his debut as an 18-year-old in a Betfred Cup Group game against Montrose. He has since made 52 appearances for the Leith club. In recent seasons his temperament has occasionally come into question, his all action style of flying into tackles having found him in trouble with referees. He has also been troubled by injury, most recently a knee injury picked up in January.

Under Jack Ross, Porteous has started all four Premiership games to date in Hibs’ impressive unbeaten start to the season. He will be hoping an injury and suspension free season with Hibs will catch the eye of Steve Clarke and see him graduate from the under 21’s to the A team.

Liam Lindsay (24, Stoke City)

Caps: 0 Notes: Liam Lindsay is a centre back who has often been talked about in Tartan Army circles since he left Partick Thistle to join Barnsley in 2017. 90 games for the Tykes later and he was moving again, this time to Stoke City for roughly £2m.

His time at Stoke has been relatively frustrating, being frozen out of the first team since January after former Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill arrived. Recent press speculation has linked him with a move to Tony Mowbray’s Blackburn Rovers in the Championship. It will be interesting to see where he ends up come the start of the season. Michael Rose (24, Coventry City)

Caps: 0

Notes: A name that may be unfamiliar to many Scottish football fans (other than those who listen to PureFitbaw who have been championing him for a while), Michael Rose has been cultivating a decent reputation in England with Coventry City. Born in Bridge of Don, Rose spent his youth career at Aberdeen before breaking through at Ayr United where he made 106 appearances.

A move to Coventry in January 2019 followed. This season, he was every-present, playing 40 games in all competitions as Coventry City upset the odds to win League One ahead of much fancied rivals including Portsmouth and Sunderland. The fact they only lost three games all season, conceding 30 goals in 34 league games points towards an impressive defence.

Scotland fans should keep a close eye on how Coventry get on in the Championship next season, where Rose will be tested at the highest level he has played at to date.

Jack Elliott (24, Philadelphia Union)

Caps: 0

Notes: Another left-field option is Jack Elliott, currently plying his trade in the city of Brothertly Love with Philadelphia Union. Born in London to Scottish parents, the 6ft5 centre back came through the College system in the USA, playing for West Virginia University before being drafted (signed) by Philadelphia Union in 2017.

He has played 97 times for Union, scoring 7 and assisting 4 more. Given the ever increasing standard of the MLS, you would hope that Elliott is on Steve Clarke’s radar, especially for upcoming Nations League games, given the 2020 MLS season isn’t scheduled to end until December. The League was due to end in October but has been extended due to the Coronavirus lockdown.

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