Saturday, March 23, 2013

Paul Ritchie earned seven full international Caps for Scotland and more at U21 level and below.

The ex-Hearts hero may be plying his trade on the other side of the world at the moment, as assistant manager of Vancouver Whitecaps in Major League Soccer, but he is still proudly Scottish and looking forward to taking time out from his busy schedule to watch the next two matches in Scotland's 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, the first competitive games in the new Gordon Strachan era.

Paul's fellow assistant manager in Vancouver is former Wales international Carl Robinson. The two had some excellent banter in the build up to the last game between the two countries, with some secret wagers between them. As we all know, that particular match ended horribly thanks to the Welsh submarine Gareth Bale. Dive. Dive. Dive.

Ritchie took it as well as any Scot would, and with Vancouver's manager also being a Scot, Martin Rennie, Robinson immediately found himself on a scouting trip to Honduras! We're sure that was just purely coincidental.

Now round two was last night, so by the time you read this, we'll all know just how good or bad things ended this time around.

We're hoping well, as it will put the following interview into a better context, as Paul chatted with AFTN last week to share his thoughts on Strachan's appointment, how we should play out the remaining qualifying campaign and the continuing inclusion of Scotland captain Kenny Miller, who is with him over in Vancouver.

So what does Ritchie think of Strachan as the new Scotland gaffer?

"He's a quality coach. He's coached at the highest level. I think he's the fans choice, so I think when you have the fans backing it will go a long way because the Tartan Army have been starved of success recently.

"Hopefully under a new manager we can aim to progress. It might take a number of years. There's a lot of good kids coming through. It might be too late this year to qualify for Brazil, but I think there a chance for the future."

Has Ritchie ever played alongside Strachan in his 17 year pro career?

"No. I never played with Gordon. I played with a number of teams against him."

We spoke about the dilemma Strachan faces in these very pages a couple of weeks ago. Does he play his strongest team and experienced players in the remaining qualifiers, in the hope that some kind of footballing miracle can be pulled off, or does he blood the new breed of Scottish internationals and let the likes of Jordan Rhodes get valuable experience spearheading the attack, thinking ahead to that next qualifying campaign?

Ritchie had no question as to how Strachan and Scotland should approach the remainder of the campaign.

"I think we've got to go for it as long as it's mathematically possible. Two games coming up and if we win both of these games it gives us a good chance. But you know what Scotland's like. We give ourselves a chance and then fall at the last hurdle.

"But I think as long as we can succeed and as long as we have a chance to qualify, we must go for it, so we must pick the best players available at the time."

And that's just what Strachan has done. He's picked the strongest squad he could for the double header against Wales at Hampden last night and in Serbia on Tuesday.

For the Whitecaps management and fans that has meant the loss of Kenny Miller for the game in Houston today, and who knows what state he will be in when he arrives back for the Chivas game the following weekend.

You see, Major League Soccer has many faults and one of them is their sometimes crazy scheduling that sees league games directly clashing with the international calendar.

This is despite the US still being heavily involved in trying to reach Brazil, having games themselves on Friday and Tuesday, and with 38 players from 15 different countries now missing their club matches this weekend as they are away on international duty.

There's no postponements for clubs, no matter how many players they may be missing. This is no East Fife v Clydebank situation!

But why bring Miller over for his second cross-Atlantic journey in a few weeks? He only saw a handful of minutes against Estonia.

The answer is experience and what he can bring to the squad off the pitch, as well as on it. A role he has been undertaking in Vancouver, as he takes the new crop of young striking talent at the club under his wing.

You also have to factor in that he has had a new lease of life and started the new MLS season with a bang, becoming captain of the Whitecaps and winning over his doubters with two excellent performances and an opportunistic goal of the highest order.

Maybe Strachan is right to keep him involved and we'll see the Kenny Miller of old in a Scotland shirt again. Ritchie seems to think so.

"Kenny's in the squad now. I know for a fact that there's a number of people back home who think he's past it, he's too old. Having seen him in the first two games of this season, he's got a lot of football left in him.

"The effect he has here with the younger players, I think he can have that effect on the Scottish players. When you look at the younger players who are involved with the national team just now, playing at a good level, they're really lacking that little bit of experience. Kenny's got that experience and he's willing to share that.

"He's a fantastic pro and the younger ones like Jordan Rhodes will learn off Kenny Miller."

So is a coaching role in the Scotland set up something that Ritchie sees in the future for Miller? And how happy will the Whitecaps be in Miller making 12+ hour journeys across the Atlantic for such a role?

"Time will tell. From our point of view, unless he does play, it's not beneficial to us as a club to have Kenny flying back and forward.

"Kenny will make that decision himself. If he's part of these next two squads and playing and involved, then good for him, keep at it. But if he goes there and doesn't play.

"I know his family circumstances are a little bit different just now, his wife and baby are back home, so that's the thing, but we can't have Kenny making these trips for nothing. And that's a selfish point of view.

"Kenny was fantastic the first two games of the season for us and we need to keep him like. We don't want him travelling 5,000 miles there and 5,000 miles back to sit on the bench. Everybody knows that when you go away with the national team, the training isn't as intense as it is with your club team.

"He's a great professional. I think the break will do him good, but hopefully he does play and hopefully he plays some part in Scotland winning the next two games."

Paul of course didn't have the knowledge that all of us reading this today now do. So how did last night go? Did we give Wales a doing? Did we get revenge and kick Bale off the park? Has the Strachan era started as a success? Do we have something to look forward to on Tuesday? Or was it a case of same old, same old?

Sadly we all know things went tits up again, but as Ritchie says above, we do have a habit of falling. And it never gets any easier. It's still going to be a long road ahead.

[This article first appeared in the East Fife programme 'The Bayview' on Saturday March 23rd 2013.]

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