THE Josy Barthel stadium in Luxembourg has been kind so far to Billy Stark and his protege Jordan Rhodes.
The prolific Blackburn Rovers striker is likely to get an opportunity to emulate the hat-trick he scored at this venue in a 5-1 victory for the under-21 side in October 2011 for the full team on Wednesday night and few know more about his instinct for scoring goals than the Scotland interim manager. All going well, the Tartan Army may even get a first glimpse of how he can dovetail with another of Stark's ex-pupils, Steven Fletcher. "Jordan scored a hat-trick at this same stadium for the under-21s," said Stark, of the striker he brought into the Scotland fold after discussions with his father Andy. "With Jordan there's lots of things to look at in terms of the all-round package of whether he's going to be a national team player for the next 10 years. But the one thing with him is that if he gets a chance, he normally takes it. The way he sees it, a chance is a chance. It's not: 'oh we're playing Spain, it's a different chance'."
A chance is a chance all right. Stark himself may not be heading too many shortlists to replace Craig Levein as permanent manager of Scotland, but this has to be seen as an opportunity for the former Morton, St Johnstone and Queen's Park boss to make the top job his own. There are both financial and logical reasons for Stark to be retained – money is tight and few people are better placed to oversee what can be a troublesome transition for players between under-21 and full level. He may not boast the box office of Gordon Strachan or Walter Smith, but Stark is a diligent and studious coach with his own ideas about the game. It was entirely typical of his measured, downbeat approach that his first squad should refuse wholesale changes, yet give a nod to a few staples of his time in the under-21s, such as Rhodes and Barry Bannan, who has returned to the first team at Aston Villa in recent weeks.
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"If I'd made changes and brought in some of the under-21s, that would smack of me bringing them in," said Stark. "The boys who are there might not have got the results they deserve, but you could never question their commitment or their talent. The cult of the manager has grown immeasurably over the last number of years," he added. "I go back to when I started, when the manager sat in the dugout. Now you're judged that if you don't jump up and down on the touchline, it says you've no passion and you don't care. It would drive you round the twist. That guy jumping about might be out having a pint and not bothering about the game whereas the other guy who's been studied might not be able to sleep."
Make no mistake about the honour the 55-year-old derives from his opportunity – regardless of the unsavoury circumstances in which he has inherited the job. This is perhaps magnified by the realisation that his chances to play for Scotland were never quite so forthcoming. It remains a source of mystery to many that this stealthy midfield runner never graced the dark blue of his nation. "I know it's on an interim basis, but when you look at some of the people that have had this job – it could be daunting if you let it be," he said. "It [his lack of caps as a player] is not something I am bitter about because you had the likes of Graeme Souness and Gordon Strachan and even Jim Bett. There were some right good players in there so I couldn't argue with not being given a chance at international level, but here we are. I have never been one to look for people to build you up beyond what you should be, but if people can say he is capable and did a good solid job, that's good enough for me."
Although some senior members of the squad such as Allan McGregor, Gary Caldwell and Scott Brown have been excused the trip, Stark has been delighted by the willingness of captain Darren Fletcher, after injury and illness, and veteran striker Kenny Miller, whose season in MLS has just come to an end, to pitch themselves into a supposedly meaningless November friendly. His squad is also boosted by the return of Phil Bardsley and Steven Naismith after injury and suspension.
Scotland are all but out of the World Cup qualifying hunt but Stark's previous spell as caretaker, following the sacking of his friend and mentor Tommy Burns at Celtic, shows how quickly things can change. Having led the Parkhead side to two wins and a draw, it wasn't until Rangers won at Tannadice in May 1997 that the title was lost for Stark's side. "I was there at Celtic when Tommy left and that was really difficult," he said. "But I was able to fulfil that task and I aim to do this to the best of my ability. Owen Coyle scored for Motherwell at Ibrox on the Monday and all of a sudden Rangers had to go to Tannadice and Tynecastle and win the two games and there was a wee chance that Tommy was gone and we'd have won the league. But Brian Laudrup scored with a header at Dundee United and Rangers won it that night. I don't know if this is an easier task, this isn't the time to answer that. We'd all love a magic formula. But this is going to be a longer process. Hopefully it can start on Wednesday."