THERE were a few conspicuous absentees from the 25 man Scotland squad which Steve Clarke named yesterday afternoon for the forthcoming friendly internationals against the Netherlands and Northern Ireland at Hampden.

Aaron Hickey of Brentford, Ryan Jack of Rangers and Callum McGregor of Celtic, three players who have all featured regularly for Clarke during his near five year tenure, are all unavailable for the double header.  

The national team manager, though, is optimistic the trio will be fit once again when the Euro 2024 finals in Germany come around in June and is not, not yet anyway, fretting unduly about their injuries. “Touch and go at the minute doesn’t bother me,” he said.

Clarke fully anticipates he will have some harsh calls to make when he finally determines which 23 players he will take away to the tournament this summer. He expects that as many as five hopefuls are going to be left disappointed by his final selection. 

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“It’s not weighing heavy on me in March,” he said. “But it will at the start of May when I have to go and make those decisions and have those conversations. But that’s the job, that’s what I’m paid to do and that’s what I’ll do.

“The ideal scenario is you get to the beginning of May and everyone is fit and available and I have got to make tough choices. Historically, people will tell you that you will probably lose one or two that you want to select to go to a tournament. So fingers crossed we don’t.

“A lot of it is going to be dependent on fitness. You can’t read into the future so you don’t know what’s going to happen. You might lose some that you don’t want to lose. Hopefully that’s not the case. But at the moment I’m probably looking at disappointing four of five players. 

The Herald: “This is going to be a big decision. It’s going to have a big impact on some of these young lads’ lives. But I’ve lived it, I’ve been there, I understand it. I’ll be sorry for them, but it’s quite a brutal business at times football.” 

Clarke added: “We had more bodies to choose last time (Clarke was able to name 26 players for the Euro 2020 finals in 2021 due to the Covid pandemic), but there were still some tough decisions to make.

“I left out Andy Considine, who had come in and done really well, so that was a tough call. Liam Palmer also missed out at the last minute because of young Nathan Patterson coming through at Rangers.

“So those were two difficult conversations. I think this time I will probably have more than two difficult conversations because the squad size is a little bit smaller.”

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There were seven centre backs – Liam Cooper, Grant Hanley, Jack Hendry, Scott McKenna, Ryan Porteous, John Souttar and Kieran Tierney – in the Scotland squad which Clarke announced yesterday and it is unlikely all of them will be involved at Euro 2024 if Hickey returns to the fray.

The same can be said of the midfielders. Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Christie, Lewis Ferguson, Billy Gilmour, John McGinn, Kenny McLean and Scott McTominay have been called up for the games at the Johan Cruyff Arena on Friday week and Hampden the following Tuesday. But will all of them be given the nod if Jack and McGregor come back?

“There are a lot of centre backs in there,” said the manager. “In the midfield area, there are seven this time. Obviously, Ryan and Callum would be strong candidates to join that. But I can’t see me taking nine midfield players. So that will be another decision for me to make.”

The Herald: Clarke, who is hoping to build up some important momentum in the Netherlands and Northern Ireland games, stressed that he is not unduly troubled by the absence of Hickey, Jack and McGregor at the moment.

“Aaron is improving,” he said. “Slowly, but he is improving. He should get a return to the grass early or mid April. I am hopeful. Callum is similar. The feedback I have had is he will be back after the international break so fingers crossed on that one.

“Ryan is another one I had in my mind that I was going to select for these games. Rangers were going to start him against Hibernian according to their manager Philippe Clement. But he has picked up another little niggle so he hasn’t made the squad. But he was in my mind to select for sure.

"It would be particularly sore (for Jack to miss Euro 2024 having not been involved at Euro 2020). But it's going to be hard on anybody missing another tournament. Circumstances might dictate that is the case, but hopefully not.”

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The Scotland manager was missing Hanley, Andy Robertson, Souttar and Kieran Tierney for the Euro 2024 qualifiers against Georgia away and Norway at home back in November and he was pleased he could call all of them up for this month’s friendlies.

Particularly Hanley. The 48-times capped 32-year-old has not featured for his country since the 2-0 win over Spain in Glasgow in March last year due to an achilles issue. Clarke is delighted that a defender who has been involved to some of his biggest results in the past has come through a difficult period. 

“It is good to get a few boys back,” he said. “Grant has been out for a long time with what is a tricky injury, especially at that stage in your career. But he has done well. He is back in the Norwich team. I have seen him live a couple of times and he is doing alright.

“I have always liked Grant, his style of play. Maybe I am a bit old fashioned, but he is a proper old fashioned centre back. He does what it says on the tin Grant. I call him on of my men. You know what you are getting week in, week out. He is one of my reliables.

“He is quite quiet, keeps himself to himself. But when he has got something to say he will say it and people will listen. No, he is a good character, a good man to have in the group. It is nice to have him back in.”

The 60-year-old underwent a pre-Euro 2024 health check himself earlier this week as the SFA continued their preparations for the finals in Germany. “It was in case they find anything wrong before I go,” he said. “I’m still waiting on the results, but I did alright. I didn’t fall off the treadmill!”

The Herald: