From day one of my professional career, international football was a really big deal.
Basically, if Scotland called me up then I’d be on the road or on the plane for each and every game. But that didn’t stop Don Revie trying to stop me and others from heading off with our countries – and believe me, he tried his best!
Don’s attitude was that Leeds United came first and it was better for the club if the main players in his squad stayed safely at home while the international games went on. That way you guarded against injuries, delayed flights and all those sorts of problems.
You earned match fees and other expenses from playing for your country so Don would always promise us that we’d never be left out of pocket if we opted to stay at home. But to a man, we wanted the caps and we wanted to play.
It was a bit of a game and our ambition as players meant Don could never make us listen, much as we all respected him.
All of that makes me wonder what was really going on with Raheem Sterling when he talked his way out of England’s team against Estonia. There’s nothing to say that he wasn’t feeling tired but I find it a very surprising excuse – and an odd way for him to avoid starting the qualifier. My experience of professional footballers is that they play and play until they drop.
Occasionally you’ll get lads who are struck down by illness or simply can’t get over a niggling injury but it’s not a common thing for someone to admit that they’re suffering from fatigue. Normally it falls to a manager to pull someone from the team if they’re out of sorts or struggling to make an impact. If Sterling was genuinely knackered before the Estonia game then I’d have expected Roy Hodgson to tell him that, rather than the other way round.
At the end of the day, England played one of the worst sides in Europe last week – San Marino – and weren’t exactly involved in a back-breaking fixture in Estonia.
Fixtures in eastern Europe aren’t a doddle but they’re games you’d expect the England team to win – and the English were well worth their victory.
Sterling’s a forward and a goalscorer, the same as I was, and those two matches are a forward’s dream. If I was Sterling, I’d have looked at them and thought ‘this is a chance to get right in amongst the goals’. That’s the attitude top players have. So to ask to be left on the bench naturally poses a lot of questions about what’s going on in his head.
I might be old-fashioned but modern football is obsessed with fatigue and burn-out.
Clubs don’t play many more games than we did back in the day and I always think that fit, young, professional athletes should be able to cope with a hard run of fixtures. There’s more attention paid to sports science than ever before and the top sides focus so heavily on recovery. You can do a lot of travelling as an international player but I do remember that either side of the games I played for Scotland, there was plenty of time to rest and recuperate. You’re away from home and in many respects you’ve got less to think about or do. You could sleep for hours if you wanted to. I suppose the reality with Sterling is that he’s a top prospect so his chance will come again. As strange as it is to see someone apparently running out of steam in October, he’s too good to lose his place in the England side.
But from the point of view of other youngsters – and I’m thinking about the lads in the academy at Leeds – I don’t think Sterling’s example is one to follow. If you’re going to carve out a long career, you need to push for chances and take them when they come. It’s risky to start picking and choosing when you play.
To give you an example, as delighted as Darko Milanic will have been to reach the international break and get a bit of time to work with the squad at Leeds, plenty of our players will have been fidgeting like mad during this fortnight.
Yes, it can be good to get a little breather – particularly in the summer months – but there’s a lot of jostling going on and a lot of lads pushing to be in the team. If you’re a footballer, you want to play.
That’s the way I see it. And if you don’t then I think there’s something wrong. It’s fine to protect your career but it’s just as dangerous to think that your career will go on forever.