analysis Despite being brought together through necessity, Berra and Caldwell have developed into a promising pairing, writes Graeme Macpherson
It has been the area of the team that has given Craig Levein, the Scotland manager, most food for thought, with two fine goalkeepers, a plethora of attacking full-backs, a surfeit of midfielders, as well as some promising forwards all at his disposal.
For a country that tends to pride itself on an ability to produce towering, domineering centre-halves carved out of granite, it comes as something of a surprise that there seems so few at this moment in time capable of stepping up to international football.
Of those playing regularly in that role for the leading sides in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, only Celtic’s Charlie Mulgrew and Hearts’ Andy Webster are eligible for the national team and both will surely be worth considering in future if they continue to perform well.
It seems time has now been called on the international career of David Weir, while Middlesbrough’s Stephen McManus has flitted in and out of contention. The great young hopes for the future, Danny Wilson and Grant Hanley, have found regular first-team football at club level hard to come by. So, whether by accident or design, it seems Levein will continue to plug away with Caldwell and Berra for now.
It is an arrangement that seems to suit both players as they get to know each other’s playing style and gel into a proper partnership. Caldwell, at 29, is three years older than Berra but both are young enough to be able to continue playing together until the next World Cup finals and beyond.
That is an arrangement that would suit Berra just fine. “Myself and Gary have played the last five, six or seven games together and I think we are getting better as a partnership the more we go on,” the Wolverhampton Wanderers player said. “I thought we defended well against Cyprus [on Friday night]. We worked as a unit.
“The team is trying to play more expansive football and that means there are times when we might be open to counter attacks. But I think the nation would rather see us play that way and pass it rather than sit on the edge of our 18-yard box and hoof it. When the counter attacks come we have to slow them down and try and make them shoot from distance. I felt we did that [against Cyprus]. It was our misplaced passes that started some of their attacks but sometimes that is the price you have to pay if you want more attacking football.”
Berra has been part of the Scotland set-up for more than three years now but admits to still suffering pangs of anxiety about keeping his place. “Every time you come away you feel you are on trial because there is always something to prove,” admitted the former Hearts captain. “If you don’t perform well then there is always someone ready to step into your place. I’m delighted to be playing just now. There was a time when I wasn’t and it was frustrating. But I kept coming along and just got on with it. Hopefully, my time has now come and I have taken my chance. I just have to keep putting performances in.”
With Berra’s involvement looking increasingly secure, it is another Wolves player’s future involvement -- or not -- with Scotland that remains the subject of hot debate. There seems no end in sight to the ongoing squabble between Steven Fletcher and Levein, with neither man seemingly capable of making the peace so the striker can get back to playing international football again.
With Kenny Miller now approaching his 32nd birthday, Fletcher would seem the obvious candidate to eventually replace him at the apex of this Scotland team. Berra hopes some sort of agreement can be reached soon that would allow his club team-mate to return to the fold, even if the former Hibernian target man may then have to wait his turn to get back into the side.
“I think Steven has said that what happened is in the past,” said Berra. “I hope it’s been wiped clean now. He’s been injured for the past month but if he comes back and starts banging in the goals for Wolves then I don’t see why he couldn’t be back in the Scotland squad.
“He wouldn’t just walk into the team, though. We have a lot of good strikers. Kenny scored a wonder goal against Cyprus and then Craig Mackail-Smith came on and gave them such a hard time. He’s a real nuisance for defenders. We also saw the young boy Jordan Rhodes get involved at the end and he had one great shot. So there is real competition for places in that department.”
Berra will return this week to a Wolves dressing room full of jubilant Republic of Ireland players who have all but ensured their place at next summer’s European Championships following their 4-0 first leg play-off victory over Estonia. While the Irish can start to dream about the finals in Poland and Ukraine, Berra hopes it won’t be long before Scotland could also celebrate.
“It would be the highlight of every player’s career to play at a major finals for your country. I think Scotland will start the next campaign in a stronger position than before,” he said. “We have a more established team and a way of playing now. It’s a tough, evenly-matched group but we have nothing to fear. We had a poor start the last time that maybe cost us, but I think we have the right things in place to avoid that next time.”