"How long have you got," he joked when asked for all the details of his reconciliation with Steven Fletcher. The answer was as much time as was necessary. The estrangement of Fletcher had become the pressing narrative of Levein's time in charge of the national team, since no result or explanation could ever subdue the situation. Even the manager himself came to understand that it had turned into a self-defeating issue.
"When it comes down to it, the form he's in and the fact that he can help us is more important than me being stubborn," Levein said solemnly, after recalling Fletcher to his squad for the World Cup qualifying games away to Wales and Belgium. It wasn't about recriminations, yesterday, but the acknowledgement that two individuals had come to realise that the Scotland team would be better served by them establishing a working relationship.
It still took the intervention of a third party, an individual Levein was reluctant to identify. Once it was confirmed that the player wished to play for the national team again, the Scotland manager was approached, then Mick Oliver, his scout, spoke to Fletcher's agent by text, then in person. These discussions were essentially opening up a line of communication that had been considered closed since Fletcher sent a text message to Frank Reilly, an official of the SFA, in February last year to say that he did not wish to be called up for a Carling Nations Cup match against Northern Ireland. Last Monday evening, Levein conceded to his pragmatic instincts and phoned the Sunderland striker.
"His agent indicated the boy wanted a chat," Levein said. "When I phoned him he was very receptive. He just wanted to get back playing. We had a chat briefly about what happened and to make sure [we] don't get to that point again. It's important we're very open. This happened because he was unhappy about not getting selected and I was unhappy that he was unhappy.
"I felt it was the right thing [to contact Fletcher]. It had gone on so long that once I got an indication that he wanted to play, if I didn't phone him we would be back in the same position. So I thought, 'I'll take the bull by the horns and get it done'. And he couldn't have been more receptive. Steven was fed up with the whole thing as well. It was becoming a sideshow that was difficult to ignore. I'm going to try to catch up with him later this week."
Levein had held his ground for more than a year, but even principles can be undermined. The player's response to a question on Twitter about playing for Scotland, when he said simply, "yes", he would like to represent his country again, was a starting point. Then Fletcher's agent confirmed to journalists that his client was willing to return to the fold.
Levein could still have talked about his authority and the need for the manager's word to be final, but a stern tone is just as likely to seem futile when events are conspiring against you. As Scotland dropped four points from their opening two World Cup qualifying matches, scoring only once against Serbia and Macedonia at Hampden, Fletcher was asserting the worth of his talent at Sunderland. A £14m move from Wolverhampton Wanderers in the summer was an indication of his rising stature, and each of his five goals this season has been a sharp reminder of his shrewd movement and composure.
Levein once argued that Fletcher was not suited to the lone striker's role, but he is stronger now, more astute. With Kenny Miller playing in the MLS, and Jordan Rhodes still rough around the edges, Levein was only being bull-headed in not recalling a striker employing some of the best of his game with regular aplomb, even if there had been some sharp comments by Scotland players about Fletcher being pictured on holiday clutching a bottle of Buckfast during the first round of World Cup qualifying matches.
"Our players are desperate to play in this World Cup," Levein said. "The important thing is that Steven's inclusion gives them a better opportunity. I don't foresee any issues on that front. There's no doubt that his improvement and the way he's playing has been a factor in this. He can help us – that's the thing. He'll be in the squad and play on merit, just like everybody else. Steven was very open. He just wants to come back in and be a member of the squad like everybody else. I don't know the boy. He said he wanted to play and that was that. It was a big moment for me to make that phone call – of course it was. This group of players certainly give us a great opportunity to win our next match."
Levein could be poised and assured, since he knew that the return of Steven Fletcher would be widely acclaimed, but also because he was able to recall the fit-again Darren Fletcher and Scott Brown. The fixture in Cardiff a week on Friday will be pivotal to the mood of the nation and there is a cause for optimism. "All of a sudden," Levein said, "the spine of the team looks a lot more solid."
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