There was a time when Steven Fletcher thought he would never pull on the Scotland shirt again. He had rowed with the then manager Craig Levein and was banished to the international wilderness. It was then that Martin O’Neill signed the centre forward for Sunderland for £12m and became an unwitting intermediary. “The situation has not cleared up and it may need an olive branch,” O’Neill said at the time, in 2012. “Would I like to see him playing for Scotland? Of course.”
On Friday, O’Neill may regret his generosity. Fletcher is back in the Scotland team, perhaps producing the best form of his international career. On Friday night he faces O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland at what is sure to be a powder keg Celtic Park. A reply to a tweet in which he was asked if he still wanted to play for his country fully opened the door that O’Neill had nudged. He said yes and soon was in a meeting with Levein that he thought was “going to be worse than it was.”
Levein has gone and with Gordon Strachan has come renewed optimism. Scotland were full value for their point in Poland in the Group D qualifier last month. For Fletcher, left out of the Sunderland squad that drew with Tottenham in September, it has been some turnaround with club and country.
“There was a time I thought I wouldn’t get another cap,” he said yesterday at Scotland’s base, north of Glasgow. “But it’s good to be back, When you are sitting back watching Scotland on the TV, you want to be there, but you’re thinking that things are never going to get sorted. We managed to sort it, fortunately, and I’m past that now, back playing and enjoying it.
“I think me not playing for a while made me realise how much of an achievement it is to be picked by your country.
“It was a difficult time. It was hard to watch the team. When things weren’t going well, I wanted to be there helping. When they were going well, I wanted to be part of it. I’ve learned from that, it has made me a different person.”
The Irish captain and Sunderland team-mate John O’Shea will face a confident Fletcher after scoring four goals in the last five games.
“I’m good friends with him (O’Shea) and we’re looking forward to a good battle,” he added. “We go at each other week in, week out in training, so it should be good. He doesn’t kick me, he can’t get near me! I told him to stay away from my ankles last week. That goal he scored against Germany was a bit of a sickener for us. I did congratulate him the next day. Through gritted teeth!’”
That goal has cranked up the importance of Friday’s clash. Scotland are three points behind the Irish in a fiercely contested group and cannot afford to lose as they fight to reach their first major tournament since 1998.
“That would be a great achievement for us,” Fletcher said. “With the Scotland career I’ve had, just to come back and do something like that would be fantastic.
“Martin O’Neill was brilliant for me. He gives you a lot of confidence. He’s always pulling players aside for chats.”
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