Darren Fletcher hasn't exactly been to hell and back for Scotland, but he has been to Moldova and Belarus. If any Scotland player has earned a restful few days with the international set-up in America, it's Fletcher. He's had a rampant lion on his chest in umpteen countries which, to be diplomatic about it, don't feature high on anyone's list of tourist destinations. Fletcher has consistently pulled himself away from Manchester United to appear in qualifiers and – more admirably – friendlies. And now, when Scotland prepare for a sunshine jaunt to play the USA in Florida, illness means he cannot make it.
Manager Craig Levein had hoped his captain and most decorated player would travel with the squad to America despite the fact the 27- year-old is still in no condition to play. His last appearance for club or country was in November and the following month it was announced that he was taking an extended break while he received treatment for ulcerative collitis, a bowel condition. Levein thinks so much of Fletcher he felt his presence would cheer the rest of the players, but it was not to be.
"He hoped he would be well enough to travel but he was a little bit uncertain about it," said Levein. "So I said that if he was unsure, the best thing for him was to stay put. I see him as a really important part of the group. He has a great influence on other people and it's always great if he's there. But I didn't want to take him out of his rehabilitation and across to the other side of the world, whatever the complications might have been with that. So we had a chat and decided to knock it on the head."
Levein wants Fletcher back "desperately" and believes his influence is such that Manchester United could have edged Manchester City to the Barclays Premier League title if he had been available. "You can never say anything in football with any degree of certainty, but I believe if he had been fit for Manchester United this year, he might have made the difference between them not winning and winning the title. That's how highly I regard him.
"It's my intention to have him back with us to try to qualify for Brazil. I don't really like speaking about his illness; it's something which is for him and his doctors. But I can tell you that I'd love to have him in the group, even if he's not fit to play. I want him back and the rest of the lads do as well."
The rest of the lads were identified when Levein named his squad yesterday for the USA game a week on Saturday. The group included 13 England-based players and nine from the Clydesdale Bank Premier League. Johnny Russell, Dundee United's 22-year-old forward, was rewarded for a fine season with his first call-up and there were recalls for Derby County's Craig Bryson, Sunderland's Craig Gordon, Shaun Maloney of Wigan Athletic and the Hearts defender Andy Webster. James Forrest, Charlie Adam, Alan Hutton, James Morrison, Jamie Mackie, Robert Snodgrass and Barry Robson were all unavailable. Jordan Rhodes was omitted so he can play for Huddersfield Town in the League One play-off final and Scotland's under-21 qualifier against Bulgaria on May 31.
Levein has talked of Blackburn Rovers' Grant Hanley and Danny Wilson of Liverpool being a future central defensive partnership, but yesterday he speculated about Webster and Gary Caldwell, both 30, in that context. Webster has 23 caps but Levein said he was worth double that. The return of his form at Hearts has delighted the manager. "Although he has done some really good things he hasn't quite – because of injury – been able to get to the point where he is playing [more regularly for Scotland]. He should have had 50 caps in my opinion.
"Loads of things have happened that have hampered him. He is now back. I had a discussion a while ago about Andy and I needed to see him back playing week in, week out, just playing right through the season and getting himself back to a level where he is match fit and match sharp. Now he is at that level, he has been fantastic."
Levein has become a Wigan fan. "Gary Caldwell went down there as an international player, as has Shaun Maloney, but James McArthur didn't, so he [Roberto Martinez, the manager] has got to take enormous credit for what he has done. McArthur has been fantastic, he has improved his game enormously, which is great credit to Rob Martinez and Wigan.
"They have changed the way he has played. He doesn't dwell on the ball anywhere near as much as he used to. There is a much safer feel about him in possession now than before, which is a great credit to the work they have done with him, getting him to understand the position he plays. If you look throughout our group, we don't have what I would class as a current, experienced holding midfield player. There is a role there for somebody and he is very much pushing himself forward."
The manager's intention is to have a working pool of up to 43 players with the intention of having four alternatives for every position in the team. "If I can do that, and be comfortable with the fourth choice in each position, then you know we are really strong. I'm not saying I can guarantee to get four for each position, but I'd like to look towards that. What is apparent and exciting to me is that we are starting to get a really strong group."
* The SFA are giving financial support to a charity which provides therapy for people with cerebral palsy. Seven-year-old Declyn Martin, who attends the Bobath Cerebral Palsy Therapy Centre in Glasgow, attended the squad announcement and was presented with a £4000 cheque by Levein.