What a change in five years for Big Mick.
The last time Scotland faced Croatia, Stephen McManus was captaining his country for the first time. Fast forward five years and the defender now finds himself a free agent for the first time in his career. He’s also nowhere near an international call-up, despite the fact Gordon Strachan is seriously short of defensive options for Friday’s World Cup qualifier in Zagreb.
Ironically, in March, 2008, George Burley marked his first match as Scotland manager by appointing McManus his captain for a friendly against Croatia which finished 1-1. At that time the stopper would have been one of the first names on the team-sheet for both club and country, and he became the first Celtic captain to lead the club into the last 16 of the Champions League. With Scotland preparing to face the Croatians for the first time since then, the memories are flooding back for ‘Mick’.
“That was one of the proudest moments of my career,” recalled McManus. It was George’s first game in charge of Scotland, and it was a real honour when he informed me that I would be leading the team out. Wearing that armband for the first time was an incredible feeling. The same goes for leading my team-mates out at Hampden Park.
“It really is the stuff dreams are made of, and all my family were there as well, which made it even more special. When I first started out in football, had someone told me that I would play for my country just once I would have been over the moon. I managed to do it on 26 occasions and scored a couple of goals as well, so I’ve got some great memories of playing for Scotland.”
As much as McManus likes to reflect on his times wearing the dark blue of his country, he retains a burning desire of get back to that level and pull on a Scotland jersey once again. Fully fit and ready to start training once he has decided on the best option to kick-start his career again next season, the powerful centre-half is hopeful whatever decision he makes leads to a return to the Scotland set-up.
McManus, whose last Scotland cap came under Craig Levein in a 3-2 defeat to Spain in 2010, said: “Do I harbour ambitions of playing for Scotland again? Of course I do. I am only 30 years old, and if I can get back playing regular first-team football, then I’d like to think I’d come into contention along with the other defenders. “I already have a fair bit of international experience under my belt, as well as playing in the Champions League.
“Maybe if I was 33 or 34, I’d possibly think it would be asking a bit too much but I’m not.
“I’m not the type of player to close the door on anything. I would definitely never retire from international football. “Everyone is different, and I can understand why some might come to such a decision. But from my own point of view, that isn’t something I would ever consider. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope to play for my country again.”
Certainly, it should come as no surprise to anyone were McManus to force his way back into the national team, considering Strachan has already admitted it is the one area of his team which concerns him the most. It was the current Scotland manager who first appointed McManus captain of Celtic, and who then shelled out £1.5-million to take him to Middlesbrough. The appreciation is mutual.
“Gordon Strachan is definitely the right man to take Scotland forward at this time,” said McManus. “I’ve been fortunate enough to work under him at club level and I enjoyed every minute. What the Scotland players will learn from working under him is that it will be an experience they will enjoy, as long as they buy into what he is trying to achieve.
“As long as you are dedicated, give everything you have on the pitch, and play to the best of your ability, then that is all Gordon will ever expect or demand. He is so knowledgeable about the game, when he talks you listen. I even found that when he was working as a TV pundit. You find yourself concentrating on every word. I’m sure, given time, Scotland will improve as a result of having him as manager.”
As things stand, McManus is currently assessing his options and will continue to do so over the course of the summer. And he is refusing to rule out following former Boro team-mates Kris Boyd and Kevin Thomson back to the SPL.
He added: “That’s me now finished at Middlesbrough and I’m a free agent. It is a strange feeling because it is the first time in my career I have found myself in this position. I came through the ranks at Celtic before making it into the first-team, and from there I moved down to England for the first time to sign for Middlesbrough. Usually when you finish up at the end of the season, your focus is on going away and enjoying a break with the family before returning for pre-season training.
“But right now I don’t know where I will be playing next season. “It could be England, it could be abroad or it might even be Scotland. I just don’t know. It will depend on what offers come my way over the summer. I’m not going to rule anything in or out.
“My preferred option would probably be to return to England or even go abroad. But if it is in Scotland, then that’s what it is. I just want to get back playing football again. That is my focus.”