Opinion: International tug-of-war is not good for Scott McTominay

Opinion: International tug-of-war is not good for Scott McTominay

England and Scotland are both trying to persuade the midfielder to pledge his alliance, but this is a distraction he could do without.

Craig Millar

Managing an international football team has never been an easy task. It is harder now than it used to be though. 

Injuries have always been part of the game, but managers now have to contend with early retirements and more commonly players unable to get into the starting line up at their club teams.

One of the more distasteful practices to widen a managers options is to look at the family tree. Check the passport. Poach players from their country of birth.

It's not new, and for smaller countries with less of a talent pool, it is not hard to understand. Yet England has pretty much consigned to the view that if you can't beat them, join them.

The latest talent they want to get their claws into is Scott McTominay. In fairness, they are not exactly poaching in this case. Lancaster maybe less than 100 miles from Scotland, but it is in England and is where McTominay was born.

It's still wrong that Gareth Southgate is having a conversation with him regarding his international future though. The same applies to Alex McLeish, though his need is greater and his intentions probably more serious.

Scotland probably are in need

McLeish has just taken charge of Scotland, and McTominay's surname gives a huge clue to his ancestry. Scotland does not have huge resources so it is natural that he would be interested in him.

Scott Brown has been involved in the Scottish set up for over 10 years, but this week, at the age of 32, he delivered the news to McLeish that he was retiring from international football.

When one door closes, another one opens, or at least that is what McLeish will be hoping for with McTominay. The chances are he would be pushing for a start immediately should he pledge allegiance to the Scots.

It is just too soon.

Scotland are needy, but England has no business trying to get him to commit at this stage of his career. After less than a dozen league appearances, how can he be considered to play international football at all, let alone for England?

England desperate

It isn't poaching, but it is typical of England's desperation not to miss out on potential. They have history on this front.

Adnan Januzaj burst onto the scene at Manchester United. He did so at a much earlier age than McTominay and in a lot more spectacular fashion. A brace against Sunderland on his full debut catapulted him into the spotlight.

It was probably his best game in a United shirt, and possibly the only game where he made a real, meaningful contribution. At 18 years of age, his potential was huge. He had been brought up in Belgium, was eligible for Albania, yet was born in Kosovo.

Incredulously, England explored the possibility that he may be eligible to represent them, and the then manager, Roy Hodgson, admitted so. Embarrassing.

He ended up choosing Belgium, who themselves were not short of talent, and they took him to the 2014 World Cup finals. He made one start, didn't impress, and didn't feature again.

It was just too soon.

Prior to Januzaj, Jack Grealish was involved in a tug-of-war between England and this time the Republic of Ireland. Grealish was also born in England but had represented Ireland at youth level up to U-19's.

After breaking into the Aston Villa side, again this piqued the interest of England. Both countries wanted him, and both were prepared to call him up to the senior squad, but eventually, England won out and he committed his future to the Three Lions.

He has yet to make an appearance for England, though has played for the U-21's,  and is currently trying to help Villa out of the Championship. Neither Januzaj (who is injured) or Grealish need to worry about call up's for Russia in the summer.

England squabbling with other countries for representation is distasteful but is not the main issue here. It is trying to secure talent when they are not ready.

All of the players mentioned so far are hugely talented players, but playing for "your" country is the pinnacle for a footballer. And you have to be ready. 

Fierce demands

The demands of top-level club football are huge, and the competition fierce. For a young player to bed into their club side is difficult enough, especially at a top club, without the added pressure of representing a nation.

Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Frank Lampard could have played for any club team in the world. They had excellent international careers. Yet they never came close to winning anything at that level, or really replicating their club form. So how can a novice cope and contribute?

If England needed any reminders of how selecting a player when they are not ready can be damaging, then they only have to look at Theo Walcott.

What Sven Goran Eriksson was thinking when he selected him for the 2006 World Cup finals is anybody's guess. If he thought he was going to enhance his career by giving him exposure on the biggest stage at an early age, he was deluded.

All he did was put a kid in the spotlight. A kid who had played 13 times in senior football. A kid that had already been put under scrutiny with a high profile move to Arsenal. A kid who hadn't made an appearance since his move in January that year.

Walcott has had an excellent career, but it could easily be argued that he has not lived up to expectations. Expectations that were unfairly placed upon him.

McTominay is 21, not 17. He has taken his elevation into Manchester United's first team in his stride. Jose Mourinho has done nothing but praise him. The future is bright.

Yet, what if the fact he has been able to keep his place ahead of Paul Pogba is only due to the fact he is a pawn in Mourinho's game to eek more out of Pogba? If he loses his place, what then?

It is unlikely that that is the case, but how do Southgate and McLeish know that? The kid, as Mourinho likes to call him, has shown in his performances that he can handle the pressure.

He has been terrific after an understandably slow start, and it is clear he has a mature head on his shoulders. It is likely that he would take an international call-up in his stride. Everyone is different. 

It is too soon though.

Forget McLeish, his needs are clear, but why is Southgate trying to tie McTominay down now? Will he choose him for Russia? Doubtful.

Although the number of foreign players does hinder the path for English players, there is another way to find out about young talent and give them international experience at the same time. It is the youth teams at international level.

Feeder teams are the key

What is the point of the feeder teams, if when Scott McTominay plays a few games for United, all of the U-21 midfielders and the talent below that group get overlooked? 

McTominay has never played for either England or Scotland at any level. Do these organisations only watch the Premier League on TV? McTominay breaks through at Old Trafford and now they know who he is?

In fairness, McTominay has been a late bloomer and it is even a shock to people at United that he has progressed so fast. He is probably the exception though. Normally, progressing through the international ranks leads to a senior call, or should do.

Spain and Germany don't suddenly find out someone has a talent when they spring up in the first team at some club in Europe. If they did, they would call them up for the corresponding age group.

Just as youngsters at club level need nurturing, it is the same at international level. It is no surprise that Spain and Germany compete for titles.

Juan Mata has no chance of making Russia, just like Januzaj and Grealish, but he would if he had an English heritage. Ironically, he did not come through the youth ranks, but it speaks volumes that Spain can discard his services so readily.

Harry Winks might make it to the World Cup though. He has an England cap, and he did come through the England youth ranks. He has featured over 50 times for Tottenham Hotspur and is a good player. He is not good enough for England though.

That is the problem. The players that tend to get into the youth ranks have little or no chance of featuring for their club sides in England.

Winks is 22. McTominay 21. Until you can command a place in your club side - over a sustained period - and keep it, then how can you be considered at international level?

Exceptional talents

Ryan Giggs, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney were exceptional talents. Despite their tender years, no football game at any level held fears for them. Sometimes age does not matter, and it applied to all of them. These players are rare though.

Marcus Rashford has some similarities to those players, but he is not quite at their level or at the level they were at his age. He is 20, and although younger than Winks and McTominay, he has played more football than both of them at senior level. He is also an England regular.

He has also shown that he has pace, skill and can score goals against any opposition in any setting. Quite good for a striker. He has adapted to playing in wide positions and is a better player than the one who made his debut against Midtjylland.

He should make the plane to Russia and should be in the starting line up.

Jamie Redknapp recently commented that the arrival of Alexis Sanchez should make Rashford consider his future at United as it may harm his international aspirations. What utter rubbish.

Why should he leave? To get more first team opportunities? Until his recent injury, he had featured in every game for United this season, either starting or from the bench. In total, he has played over 100 games for United.

What would changing teams do? Go where? Would he be more beneficial at any of the 'top six' clubs? No. He would spend time on the bench at every one, and if he went down to the likes of Everton and played regular would that really benefit his career?

Club first, then country

What Rashford needs to do is knuckle down and perform so well that his manager can't leave him out. The same goes for McTominay. If they do that, then the international aspect will take care of itself.

McTominay is only just starting. He looks like he has a bright future, and has so many similarities to Darren Fletcher it is uncanny. 

If he follows in Fletcher's footsteps and has a similar career, then job done. Whether it's England or Scotland, if he makes it at United he will serve them well.

Just not now. Let the boy progress, develop, and if this time next year he is still doing the business for United, give him a call.