ALEX MCLEISH felt Steven Naismith was destined to have the biggest say in his Scotland side’s 2-0 victory over Albania in their UEFA Nations League opener.
Naismith was only called up to the squad seven days earlier following injury to Oli McBurnie but he and Johnny Russell were preferred to Leigh Griffiths up front and the Hearts forward was at the centre of the Hampden action.
Naismith endured a frustrating first half – heading against the post from two yards and being denied a goal by a marginal offside decision.
But the 31-year-old helped give Scotland a deserved lead a minute into the second half when his header bounced in off an Albanian head. And the former Rangers and Everton forward claimed the second when he headed home after John McGinn’s corner.
McLeish, who brought on Griffiths with 20 minutes left, said: “I work with the players every day. I see them, you guys don’t. So I think I’m pretty well qualified to select who I choose to. And I feel those two did very well for us, Johnny Russell and Naisy.
“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I said that to Naisy. It’s happened to me – I was dropped by Scotland and got called up again and never looked back.
“I spoke to Naisy in the summer to come on the trip and he was suffering with a heel injury and he asked if he could stay at home and let it recover. I said if you start the season well then we’ll consider you for selection. I didn’t call him in initially but when he arrived I said: ‘It’s meant to be’.”
McLeish added: “Johnny was lively in the Mexico game and he was always in my mind. I like his skills and his powerful running at defences.
“I wanted to play a pairing and Steven Naismith was showing up well in training also. But he’s continued the good start he has had.
“We got Leigh on, we wanted to get him minutes. He is still very important to us.
“Sometimes the system doesn’t suit the player. I know there’s been a lot of talk bout me playing players out of position and I would have had to have done that tonight to keep other players happy.
“But we love them all, we want them all to be involved and there will be times we change the system to suit certain players who were on the bench.”
McLeish had suffered four defeats in his first five games since being reappointed – the latest a 4-0 reverse against Belgium. But his return to competitive action could not have gone much smoother.
“It was a very good performance,” he said. “The players played at a great tempo, they were very versatile in wide areas and the centre-backs joined in at times. But we did it with good defensive discipline as well.
“Albania did come into it a little bit when they settled down but we hit them with a whirlwind. We never quite got that early goal and you can’t keep that pace up forever, and it was very nice to see that first goal go in.”
Albania head coach Christian Panucci was unhappy with his side’s defending.
The former Italy defender said: “Scotland definitely had more chances than we did but the manner which we lost the goals… I’m struggling to find the right words to describe it.
“I’m not exactly happy about it but I don’t want to take anything away from a great performance from Scotland.”