Early Doors

Levein within his rights to trawl England

Early Doors

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There is surely a certain irony in the fact that, as Scotland takes the first meaningful steps towards political independence from England, its football team is focusing ever more intently on a pool of players born south of the border.

This debate over nationality and split loyalty was ignited again on Monday when Scotland named Blackpool's English-born forward Matt Phillips in their squad to face Slovenia in a friendly international next week.

The 20-year-old, who has scored 16 goals this season in all competitions, has represented England at Under-19 and Under-20 level yet could now form a part of Scotland's plans for the World Cup qualifying campaign when it starts in earnest next season. Appearing against Slovenia would not commit his future to Scotland definitively, but it appears only a matter of time before Phillips appears in a competitive fixture and does just that.

He is not alone. Phil Bardsley, Matt Gilks, Craig Mackail-Smith, James Mackie, Russell Martin and James Morrison are all English-born members of the Scotland squad while Craig Levein is said to be hopeful of convincing Liverpool's young midfielder Jonjo Shelvey to join the growing band. And, as Levein concedes, his deliberate strategy to explore the heritage of ostensibly English players has been causing no little disquiet at Football Association HQ at Wembley.

He said on Monday: "There has been [resentment]. There has been an indication that they are not particularly happy about it but I see that as a compliment in some regards.

"I think it's really important that we widen the net and give ourselves the best chance. Other countries have been doing what we are attempting to do for years now. It is no coincidence that a lot of those countries have been very successful.

"I'm very proud of my Scottish roots but my job, most importantly, is to give us the best chance possible of qualifying for Brazil. It's as simple as that."

Levein has laid out his strategy in starkly pragmatic terms but this policy of English recruitment has not been universally embraced by some of his countrymen. The Scotsman reports on Tuesday that the Phillips call-up "further dismayed those who question whether it is desirable to have a Scotland squad which is so heavily reliant on English-born players ... it has added further fuel to the fire for those critics of the Scotland manager's willingness to award caps to players who some suspect are making a convenient switch of nationality."

However, what Levein is doing is perfectly legitimate and Early Doors sees no reason to use it as a stick with which to beat the international manager.

This is hardly equivalent to Qatar convincing random athletes to switch nationalities with offers of citizenship and cash. A much closer parallel can be found in Jack Charlton's successful attempts to assimilate English-born players while Ireland manager, and we all know Big Jack doesn't want for a pint when out in Dublin.

Few complained when Spain recruited the Brazilian Marcos Senna, who played such an integral role in their triumph at Euro 2008 and, as Levein suggests, plenty of other countries and players have exploited FIFA's increasingly more fluid concept of nationality. Tim Cahill, for example, once played for Samoa, tried to represent Ireland at the 2002 World Cup and finally became an all-Australian hero.

In the specific and high-profile case of Phillips, Scotland did not even go searching out the player: it was his Scottish grandfather who contacted a journalist north of the border to alert Levein to his availability.

"This is not one of those cases that we have been researching and found out on our own," Levein said. "This came from his family to us, if you know what I mean. It is quite a big decision, as you can imagine, to change nationality but he is very excited about the prospect of being involved. His grandfather is very proud I can tell you, and so is his family. Everybody has their own reasons for wanting to play for Scotland."

Early Doors can't help but feel the FA is on very shaky ground if, as Levein claims, it is angry about Scotland's advances. Has the governing body that has appointed two foreign managers never heard of Owen Hargreaves?

Also, the FA is surely aware that, in the majority of cases, switching nationalities is as much driven by the pragmatism of the players as it is the pragmatism of the international manager.

Though perhaps Levein is right when he says "who is to say that Matt Phillips isn't any more patriotic towards Scotland than half the people who live in Scotland?", in plenty of other cases a choice is made on the basis that playing for England is somewhat unrealistic.

The fact Scotland are reportedly having rather less success in their attempts to recruit Tottenham's Steven Caulker and most notably Chelsea's Josh McEachran surely demonstrates as much.

Furthermore, Scotland, as Levein was at pains to point out, have also been on the receiving end of such advances in the past.

"One of the things that is really important to me is that, although we are actively looking to increase our pool size, we don't want to lose anybody that is in Scotland," he said.

"We have had two recent cases of [losing] very, very good players [to Ireland] - Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy. This is as much of a disappointment to me as it is pleasing to get good quality players in. We are not forgetting about the home-grown talent, but I think it's really important that we widen the net and give ourselves the best chance."

Levein has a clear responsibility to try and field the best Scotland side he can, and if Phillips feels playing for Scotland represents the best move for his career, then who can begrudge their union?

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "We tried to bring him in on a short term loan." - A boring quote in isolation you might think, until you realise that it came from the mouth of West Ham co-owner David Gold and was confirmation that the Championship club attempted to bring Fernando Torres to Upton Park in January. Yes, that Fernando Torres.

FOREIGN VIEW: Libyan football fans of all ages came out to cheer the first international matches played in the North African country since the conflict that ousted Muammar Gaddafi amid hope Monday's games would be the start of many more to come. CSKA Sofia, the 31-times Bulgarian champions, were the first foreign team to play in Libya after the uprising against Gaddafi's rule erupted on February 17 last year.

Although the "Benina Martyrs" stadium in the eastern city of Benghazi was not full, about 1,000 Libyan men, women and children came to support the two home sides playing, Al Ahli Tripoli and Al Nasr Benghazi.

"We feel more comfortable now. We watched football matches without interest during the revolution but it is different now and it feels great," Libyan fan Saad Mohammed al-Breghathy said. "I wish the Libyan national team all the best as well for Libyan football in general."

COMING UP: Andre Villas-Boas faces a potentially defining moment in his Chelsea reign as his side play away at Napoli in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 clash. The game in Italy gets underway at 7.45pm, but before that Real Madrid travel to CSKA Moscow at 5pm.

There are also games in the lower leagues, Scotland, Italy and France in a busy evening of football. Meanwhile, our La Liga blogger Andy Mitten brings us up to date with events in Spain this evening.

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