5 October ~ There’s a Scottish midfielder in the Premier League who’s been an ever-present for his side this season, and who’s been garnering high praise from his manager for his skills and his work rate. Thank goodness there’s a Scotsman in form just as the national team shapes up to play away in the Czech Republic, followed by a less than easy home game with the world and European champions. Meanwhile, an Englishman is being lionised for the passing abilities that have helped take FSV Mainz to the top of the Bundesliga with maximum points from seven games. An English midfielder with passing vision? Not before time given that we haven’t seen the like since the decline of Paul Gascoigne.
Except that Stuart Holden of Bolton Wanderers cannot play for Scotland. He was long since snapped up by the US. And Lewis Holtby of Mainz, despite having declared an ambition to one day play for Everton (the team supported by his English father), has also declared a preference to play for Germany (the land of his mother). It seems that when it comes to luring players of dual nationality the home nations have a tendency to lose out. Instead of scouting Aberdeen-born Holden, Scotland picked up Chris Iwelumo, squanderer of the worst miss in the history of international football. Instead of being alert to the rise of Holtby, England managed to pry the injury-wracked legs of Owen Hargreaves from the grasp of poor little Canada.
Of course the players make these decisions on their own, but it helps when they feel wanted. Given Scotland’s apparent inability to produce players of international quality, you’d think they’d be paying attention to potential recruits from abroad. Yet when former Scotland manager Alex McLeish was told of Holden’s potential in 2007, just as he was emerging very strongly with the Houston Dynamo in Major League Soccer, his reaction was to say that he’d heard the player was “a bit of a talent and we’ll definitely be taking a look. If Stuart continues to show up well we’d be delighted to consider him part of our future plans.” Just over half a year later, Holden was capped by the US for the first time. And I don’t want to second-guess the thought patterns of the Scottish FA and its employees, but it would be no surprise if snobbery about the perceived standards of MLS played a role in their clear lack of urgency to follow up on the player.
“Stuart has been magnificent for me since day one,” said Bolton manager Owen Coyle last week. “The energy he shows, the level of his play, fans are reacting to that. We think the world of him, and the way he's playing at the moment is terrific for the club.” At 25, he’s approaching the peak years of his career. Never mind the Czech Republic and Spain, Scotland could have used a player of his energy, industry and dead-ball skills against Lichtenstein. And on Saturday, Germany coach Joachim Löw watched the still uncapped Holtby set up three goals for Mainz, before being fouled to win a penalty that sealed their fourth. “The pass he made to set up the first goal was worth the entrance money alone,” said Löw. The Süddeutsche Zeitung quoted the "golden sunnyboy” as saying that his passing skills are “instinctive”. Oh England, an instinctive passer. Just imagine! I bet Wayne Rooney does.
When England and Scotland miss out like this, it’s not just sheer bad luck that the players opt for international careers away from the UK, even allowing for personal reasons. First, there’s the evidently weak scouting network. Second, there’s a fallacious complacency that if a player is lost, there are plenty of others to choose from. And within that is a more insidious parochialism hinting at a reluctance to bring on board players who haven’t grown up within “our system”. This links to a third factor. Namely, given the choice, what right-minded player would look at the current Scotland and England set-ups and not choose the US and Germany as preferable alternatives? The poor results, the drab performances, and a moribund culture riddled with insularity and misplaced arrogance would be enough to repel any talented prospect. As usual, we’re the architects of our own loss. Ian Plenderleith