Food for thought: Why Scotland are now punching above their weight
Fighting-fit Kalvin Phillips has been gradually reintegrated into Manchester City’s midfield after a storm in a teacup concerning his weight.
Post-World Cup, manager Pep Guardiola delivered some stinging public criticism of his player, suggesting he had returned overweight from the winter tournament in Qatar — in which he featured for only 40 minutes for England.
Guardiola is a known stickler, obsessed with fine detail, and naturally some in the game sided with his approach, while others were more sceptical about the merit of his expressed displeasure.
These ins and outs were probed on BBC Radio 5 Live, with anchorman Mark “Chappers” Chapman posing the questions to two former Scottish internationals.
“Do you have a problem, Alan, with a player’s weight being discussed in public by their manager?” he asked Alan Hutton, the former Rangers, Tottenham and Aston Villa right-back, who from 2007 to 2016 amassed 50 Scotland caps.
After briefly dismissing Guardiola’s policy, Hutton continued: “I’ve been away with Scotland, when we used to go away for 10 days, and everything was just eating, everything revolved around eating. ‘Faddy’ will tell you himself, that’s exactly what it was.”
Faddy, AKA James McFadden, will forever be remembered by Scotland fans for that 2007 goal in Paris — one of 15 he scored in 48 appearances — clinching a 1-0 win over France, perhaps the national team’s most cherished victory of recent decades. But his revelations alongside Hutton might tarnish those memories.
A bemused Chappers: “How much eating?”
McFadden: “Oh, so much …”
Hutton: “It was a disgrace!”
Cue paroxysms of laughter. And even the explicit suggestion that the food fest to which both referred in some way explained why Scotland had underperformed for so many barren years.
The former players spoke of squad selection sparking phone calls among teammates, asking: “Are you ready for the eat-a-thon?”
Kris Boyd (sorry, “Boydy”) was the unfortunate player identified on national radio as he who had stuffed his face the most. More hilarity in the studio.
But such admissions are ill-judged. It is odd that the pair, having played top-level football so recently, would confess that a brazen lack of professionalism was endemic throughout a squad trying — and always failing — to qualify for major tournaments.
The game these days is underpinned by sports science, with dietary discipline at the forefront. Long gone is the era of a starting XI celebrating hard, destroying a round of fish suppers then sweeping away their opponents on the field.
The hard-living Robson/McGrath/Keane club at Manchester United was systematically rooted out by Alex Ferguson, with remarkable results. Likewise with Tony Adams and Paul Merson et al under Arsene Wenger, who at Arsenal was credited largely with introducing healthy eating and lifestyles to the British game.
So, for Hutton and McFadden to disclose such overindulgence — and find it so funny — is an insult to those Scotland fans, myself included, who spent lots of time and money, as well as blood, sweat and tears, following the team around Europe during their food-laden international careers. The thought of those players eating to bursting point is quite grotesque.
Furthermore, in September 2015, after a plane chartered by the Scottish FA to fly the team home had been delayed, the squad was stuck in Tbilisi airport post-match, with no arrangements in place for the players to eat before boarding.
The only food outlet open was a Burger King, prompting the team to queue alongside fans to refuel after a gruelling qualifier against Georgia.
This rag-tag spectacle was witnessed by former Chelsea and Scotland winger Pat Nevin: “That’s what they had, burger and chips. They had to refuel. There was no other food for them to have. This is absolutely not a criticism of the players.
Working under Steve Clarke has been incredible. We’re going in the right direction
Andy Robertson, Scotland captain
“They have to refuel after a game and the burger joints were the only options. Where were the sports scientists who should have been checking everything? I was really disappointed with the organisation.” Or lack of. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Mercifully, it is such a different story now, with Scotland manager Steve Clarke leaving no stone unturned in instilling some probity and a bit more self-respect and gumption.
And guess what? Results improve. Take some pride in your job and people will take you more seriously.
Already under Clarke, they have qualified for a major tournament — Euro 2020 being their first finals in 23 years — and, not least by recognising the value of the recently established Nations League, Scotland have shot up the rankings and become a far more robust proposition.
They’re in a healthy position, often punching above their weight, and the upward trajectory was summed up this week by captain Andy Robertson.
“We managed to get to the Euros, which was incredible,” he told the BBC. “Working under Steve Clarke has been incredible. We’re going in the right direction.”
So it is a rejuvenated, altogether more professional Scotland that will take to Hampden Park against Cyprus on Saturday, then Spain three days later.
Somehow, I can’t see Pedri and Alvaro Morata tucking into KFC at Glasgow Airport on the way home.
That previous Scotland management let such antics go, or perhaps even encouraged them, is disgraceful.
Let that be food for thought, then, Hutton and Faddy. More chips, Boydy?