Scotland’s assistant manager Mark McGhee surprised nobody when asked yesterday to identify the principal threat to Scottish hopes in Friday night’s crucial Euro 2016 qualifier at Celtic Park.
Aiden McGeady’s past history in the green and white hoops and his late winner in Georgia would make him a bona fide dangerman by any sensible reckoning.
John O’Shea too may have developed a taste for scoring important goals following his dramatic stoppage-time contribution in Gelsenkirchen last month.
McGhee, though, had no hesitation in giving his vote to a certain Robert David Keane. The 34-year-old Dubliner remains at the peak of his powers, grabbing a quickfire hat-trick against Gibraltar to hoist his international tally to 65. To put that in context, he is now just three behind arguably the greatest finisher of them all, Germany’s “Der Bomber” Gerd Muller.
Keane also knows how to find the net at Celtic Park, having done so 12 times in 16 league appearances during his brief loan spell in 2010.
As an international striker himself, McGhee is acutely aware of Keane’s talents, and he and manager Gordon Strachan have spent many long evenings working out how to blunt his rapier-like finishing.
But McGhee has an even more special interest in Keane as he knew earlier than most that he was destined to make it at the very highest level. While managing Wolves in the late ’90s, McGhee handed the teenage Keane his senior debut and was immediately rewarded with two goals against Norwich.
“I gave him his debut at 16,” he recalled yesterday at Scotland’s training base just outside Glasgow. “He’s a fantastic lad and a fantastic player, and he’s had a sensational career. I gave Emile Heskey his debut as well and he was great at that age too, but Robbie’s technique at 16 was terrific and he was able to shine playing against grown men. For sure he’ll be relishing this game, going back to Parkhead.”
McGhee was also quizzed about comments from his old Celtic team-mate Pat Bonner, who labelled this a “must-win” game for Scotland.
“I’ve never ever taken anything big Packie says seriously!” he joked. “It’s not a must-win game, it’s an opportunity for both teams. One of us can grab an advantage by winning on Friday, so it’s the biggest game of our tenure so far. No disrespect to the England game next week, but Friday is on a completely different level.”
While Keane is Ireland’s likeliest matchwinner, Scottish hopes rest on the shoulders of Sunderland forward Steven Fletcher, a novice at international level with just one goal for his country but bang in form for his club following a spell in the wilderness. A persistent ankle injury and a Mexican Stand-off with former Scotland boss Craig Levein kept Fletcher out of the picture, but he has been recalled by Strachan and has already bagged four goals for the Black Cats this season.
“This is the best I’ve felt for a long time,” he admitted yesterday. “Not playing for a while made me realise what it means to play for your country. I just concentrated on getting fit and tried not to think about maybe not playing for Scotland again. I want to win as many caps as possible and score as many goals as I can now. Making the Euro Finals would be a big, big achievement for us, but we’re just taking it one game at a time.”
Meanwhile, Hearts’ defender Callum Paterson has been drafted into the Scotland squad. The 20-year-old uncapped right-back was brought in after Phil Bardsley – who had been handed an international recall when Alan Hutton injured an ankle – was taken off after nine minutes of Stoke’s win at Tottenham on Sunday with a groin complaint which leaves him a serious doubt.
Johnny Russell got the call to replace Derby team-mate Craig Bryson on Sunday night after the former Kilmarnock midfielder pulled out with a hip injury.
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