GORDON Strachan has admitted he watched Scotland games during his first year as manager and knew the team was poorer because of Darren Fletcher's absence.
The captain is in line to play under Strachan for the first time against Poland on March 5, having been included in the 24-man squad named yesterday for the friendly in Warsaw.
Strachan had a fine first year in charge, improving Scotland's FIFA world ranking from 69th to 34th, but knew the team missed Fletcher's strength and presence during the 12 months the midfielder was sidelined by ulcerative colitis.
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"He has been missed," Strachan said. "That's not being disrespectful to anyone who has played, trust me. I just think he gives you things, even his height and strength. He adds that presence standing in the tunnel when you see someone of his stature.
"I am sure people who play with him appreciate that. It's always great when you play football and you find yourself going out of the tunnel with great players next to you. Some have great presence and he has that.
"I think his stature and experience rub off on others. I was watching Stiliyan Petrov talking about his all-time fantasy XI on Sky the other day. He named Roy Keane but only played with Roy about 15 times. That shows you the presence these people have: they make you feel better when they are there.
"With Darren coming into the squad someone else has to go out, that's the only problem. Some have done well for us over the last few games or the last year but Darren is a huge player. If you play for Manchester United, play regularly and play that many games then we must use that experience."
Strachan had a keen understanding of Fletcher's serious bowel condition because a close friend also had surgery for ulcerative colitis. "A mate of mine had a similar operation so I knew what it was about," Strachan said. "I understood it and knew how hard it was. I was able to speak to Darren about that."
Last month Fletcher told Herald Sport he wanted to be picked on merit by Strachan rather than selected out of any sort of sympathy vote. The manager stressed there was no need for the 30-year-old to worry in that regard: "It's very hard to go to Old Trafford as Scotland manager because you are not sure if Darren is going to play. But I have seen him on TV and still see the same stride, the same enthusiasm; that hasn't changed. I said to him he had a year out and that he should add that to the end of his career. Just take it as a rest.
"He has a very positive attitude, that's what you get in public. He doesn't let it get him down too much. What happens behind the scenes is entirely different sometimes. What's great is that he has his wife and family there. His public image has been terrific."