Sheffield United: Why Scotland should study events at Bramall Lane last season when they decide what to do with John Fleck at Euro 2020
It is a crushing blow for Scotland and, with John Fleck also testing positive on the eve of the tournament, will see the team’s Covid-19 protocols come under intense scrutiny.
But the news that Billy Gilmour is being forced to isolate for 10 days after contracting the virus represents an opportunity for someone else within the squad to become a hero north of the border by helping Steve Clarke’s side reach the knockout phase of Euro 2020. And it is one Fleck, the Sheffield United midfielder, will be hoping to take ahead of tomorrow’s Group D tie with Croatia at Hampden Park.
Although they will be distraught for Gilmour and aware of the effect his absence will have upon their hopes of beating the Croats, the ruthless nature of competitive sport means many of the 20-year-old’s international colleagues are now going to have an extra spring in their step ahead of the match in Glasgow.
A shoe-in to start the contest following Friday’s performance against England, Gilmour’s misfortune is another man’s stroke of luck with Clarke now searching for someone to fill the void his diagnosis has created in Scotland’s engine room. And, unless he wants to risk reshuffling the back three which helped frustrate the Auld Enemy, that could well be Fleck whose route into the starting eleven has undoubtedly been complicated by the Chelsea player’s emergence.
“We can confirm that Billy Gilmour has tested positive for Covid-19,” a statement, released by the Scottish Football Association yesterday morning, confirmed. “Having liaise with Public Health England (Scotland are based at Rockliffe Park, near Darlington) since the positive test was recorded, Billy will now self-isolate for 10 days and will therefore miss tomorrow’s UEFA Euro 2020 Group D match against Croatia at Hampden.”
Scotland need to beat Zlatko Dalic’s men to stand a chance of progressing, and Gilmour had been pencilled in for a key role after impressing with his technical prowess and positional sense at Wembley.
Clarke has various potential solutions at his disposal. But with one necessitating the break-up of the defence which kept Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden at bay, he should be mindful of how United tied themselves in knots trying to compensate for the loss of Jack O’Connell at the beginning of last term; solving one issue but creating countless others by trying to fit round pegs in square holes. Enda Stevens was deployed at centre-half for November’s visit to Chelsea, which seemed sensible at the time. But on reflection, with Stevens usually deployed at wing-back, ended up weakening United in two positions rather than one.
Clarke is being encouraged to react to Gilmour’s loss by recalling Liam Cooper, shunting Grant Hanley across the pitch and nudging Scott McTominay into the engine room. The reasoning is easy to fathom, with McTominay partnering Callum McGregor and Stuart Armstrong there against the Czechs. But with Hanley and McTominay dovetailing well in north London, there is also a school of thought that Clarke should simply recall Armstrong or parachute in Fleck, whose tenacity and energy could prove useful weapons against an ageing Croatian line-up. Either way, the United man suddenly appears a lot closer towards winning his sixth international cap.
“Every season, you get challenged by new people, different players coming along though,” McGregor said, outlining the balance professional footballers must strike between forging team spirit and pushing their own personal agendas. “I think everyone in the squad is here to play a part. It’s like that every single season.”
“You have to give your best and push to stay in the team,” the Celtic star continued. “You also have to make sure you are doing what the manager asks you to do. There is always someone trying to catch you up and take your jersey. That’s why it’s super competitive and it’s up to the players to keep pushing as much as we can every single day.
“That’s the way it is and that’s the mentality you have got to have, which I know we do.”
After being inexplicably overlooked for so many years, Fleck has spent most of his Scotland career pushing rather than playing since being welcomed into the fold by Clarke’s predecessor Alex McLeish. Although United’s relegation from the Premier League last season will not have helped his case for a more prominent role, Clarke is known to have been impressed by his commitment to the cause after leaving quarantine in Spain - where Scotland were training when he tested positive - by refusing the offer of a couple of days leave. Instead, rather than visiting his family in South Yorkshire, Fleck travelled straight to the North-East of England to meet up with the rest of his team mates.
Acknowledging Croatia will pose a “different kind of test” to England, something which could persuade him to tweak his tactics for the contest, Clarke said: “Croatia have good attributes, different attributes to England.
“They are a good team who move the ball well and we will have to defend well, and then find a way to play through their midfield where they have Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic, so we need to deal with that.
“If we get everyone on the pitch that we want to, and they all produce eight out of 10 performances, then hopefully that will be enough to get us the win that we need to get out of the group stages.”